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Canada And Iran Are Taking Steps In The Right Direction

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HOMA HOODFAR
Oman News Agency via AP
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As Canadians breathe a sigh of relief following Iranian Canadian Professor Homa Hoodfar's release from Iran's infamous Evin prison, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement, which among other things extended a hand to Iran by thanking "those Iranian authorities who facilitated her release and repatriation. They understand that cases like these impede more productive relations."

To be sure, Professor Hoodfar's release highlights the benefits of diplomatic engagement and could be the beginning of a shift in Canada-Iran relations.

While Canada's closest international partners re-engage Iran and establish diplomatic and/or economic ties, Ottawa has understandably been taking its time on playing catch up. In the absence of diplomatic relations, Canada had reportedly concluded over the summer that Oman, a country with close ties to Iran, would be best positioned to advance Canada's pursuit of Professor Hoodfar's release.

What Professor Hoodfar's release reflects is that diplomacy with Iran is effective within a big picture lens.

Reportedly, Canada made it clear to Oman that a fresh approach with Tehran would be impossible with a Canadian held in an Iranian prison for feminism. What is certain is that Oman had proven to be an effective interlocutor with Iran over the years. It was the Omanis that initiated and facilitated secret discussions in 2012 between the United States and Iran which culminated in last year's landmark nuclear deal. If Oman was to be the interlocutor then the United Nations General Assembly would provide the avenue for movement on Canada-Iran relations.

On the margins of the General Assembly, Trudeau held a meeting with Oman's foreign minister on the Hoodfar case, which in turn likely paved the way for a meeting later that day between Canada's foreign minister, Stéphane Dion, and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad-Zarif. This meeting represented the highest level direct dialogue with Iran in years. Among the items discussed were "consular cases", which almost certainly alluded to Professor Hoodfar. If Dion was to convey to Zarif that progress on bilateral ties hinged on a goodwill gesture on the part of Iran, that meeting would be the best time to do it.

What Professor Hoodfar's release reflects is that diplomacy with Iran is effective within a big picture lens. Case in point, world powers signed a historic nuclear deal last year with Iran to peacefully resolve the nuclear impasse.

The work does not end here, Iranian Canadian Saeed Malekpour is still being held in Iran.

Earlier this year, the ties that had been forged between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif paid off when American sailors who strayed into Iranian waters were returned within 16 hours and as both countries exchanged prisoners. By engaging Iran, Canada can reap the benefits of diplomacy with a country it disagrees with on many issues, including the release of Iranian Canadian prisoners of conscience. After all, diplomacy is most useful when used to talk to those you disagree with than with your friends.

To be certain, the trajectory away from the Trudeau government's inherited Iran policy began last winter when Minister Dion lifted Canada's nuclear-related sanctions against Iran in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2231 endorsing the nuclear deal. Dion indicated last June that discussions between Ottawa and Tehran began and that re-engagement would be step-by-step at the official level in a neutral country. Now that both countries have begun talking through their chief diplomats, a tangible outcome has been reached, namely Professor Hoodfar's release.

The work does not end here, Iranian Canadian Saeed Malekpour is still being held in Iran. Increased and regular engagement will be needed to secure his release as will the restoration of consular services. Canada is home to a large number of Iranian Canadians who maintain links to their homeland. These individuals are unable to access consular services for common transactions such as passport renewals, power of attorney documents and the like, and must ironically travel to Iran's Interests Section in Washington, D.C. for consular services.

To the naysayers, if the achievements of the past year are any indication, diplomacy works and "schoolyard diplomacy" of disengagement bears little to no fruit.

Re-engagement efforts should also include the resumption of trade and business transactions as permitted by the nuclear deal as well as opportunities for academic exchanges to foster cultural links and to exchange knowledge between Canadian and Iranian institutions. From a geopolitical perspective, Canadian and Iranian interests are overlapping in the fight against Daesh in Iraq and both countries belong to the International Syria Support Group, meriting consideration for increased engagement on regional issues.

As I have argued before, re-engaging Tehran does not mean that Canada and Iran will become strategic partners, however, if Canada can engage with Saudi Arabia, a country with which little is shared in terms of values, then surely it can engage with Iran whose population is highly secular and Western-leaning.

To the naysayers, if the achievements of the past year are any indication, diplomacy works and "schoolyard diplomacy" of disengagement bears little to no fruit. While diplomacy can often be a lengthy and painstaking process, it is an effective tool at bridging divides, resolving disagreements and pursuing the national interest. Understanding this, Canada deserves credit for securing Professor Hoodfar's release and for re-engaging Iran.

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