Clear Outlook for Normalization of Iran-Canada Relations

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Hossein Kebriaeezadeh
Expert on Middle East Issues

More than three years have passed since Iran and Canada severed diplomatic ties due to hardheaded positions taken by the previous Canadian government on Iran. Former prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper slammed Iran’s foreign policy approach to Syria and Israel as well as the country’s nuclear program and the situation of human rights, thus, considering them as enough ground for the severance of diplomatic ties between the two countries. In this way, the two countries’ already choppy relations entered a totally new phase.

As long as the conservative government of Harper was in power, even the election of Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani could not convince the Canadian government to change its confrontational policy toward Iran. Although adoption of a moderate foreign policy by Iran and Rouhani’s determination to reduce tensions with other countries finally broke the spell of the nuclear talks after about 12 years, from the viewpoint of Ottawa, even Iran’s nuclear deal with the P5+1 group of countries was not guarantee enough to prevent further growth of distrust between the two countries.

This situation continued until liberal politicians, whose main motto was change after a decade, surged to power in the political scene of Canada. As was expected, their election win was followed by signs of change in Ottawa’s foreign policy. As a result, when asked by Times of Oman reporter about the possibility of Oman mediating between Iran and Canada, the Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird showed a positive reaction to this issue. His reaction led to speculations among political observers that the turnabout among elites in the two countries from conservatism to moderation has apparently made a change in the two states’ foreign policy approach inevitable. However, the multi-factorial equation of relations between these two actors cannot be solved merely by eliminating one simple factor. A set of factors are playing a role in setting the two countries’ foreign policy orientation, which are considered as the main factors that still impede normalization of relations between Tehran and Ottawa.

The most important factor, in the meantime, is historical memory and political traditions of these two actors. Many Iranian experts believe that the foreign policy apparatus of Canada follows suit with the United States’ policies. Such measure taken by Canada as drawing up anti-Iran human rights resolutions, imposing sanctions on Iran over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, as well as blocking Iran’s assets were evidence in favor of this view.

In addition to this viewpoint, Canada’s own rightwing parties, which have been always swaying influence on the country’s policies, do not have a positive standpoint on a Shia Islamic government in the heartland of the Middle East. It would be, therefore, simplistic to assume that a change in approaches of the two actors will take place rapidly. In its most recent anti-Iran move, the new Canadian government followed suit with past policies by passing a human rights resolution against Iran to prove that no major turnabout has so far taken place in the country’s viewpoint on Iran.

Another factor is Israel, which plays the role of an independent variable in this regard. Canada’s all-out support for Israel reflects the depth of political difference that exists between the viewpoints of these two actors with regard to important global and regional issues.

Perhaps, it was due to this difference that Patrick Martin wrote in a report published by the Globe and Mail that the promise given by Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the reestablishment of relations with Iran was easier said than done.

I agree with Martin in this regard, but for a more accurate review of the possibility of the reestablishment of normal relations between the two countries, existing incentives must be taken into account along with inhibitory factors. From an ideological viewpoint, there is a tangible difference between the two actors’ viewpoints, but in political terms, the Iranian government is among few represented systems of governance in the Middle East, which is run on the basis of a democratic tradition. Therefore, it can cooperate with the West to achieve such political goals as fighting against terrorism, but cannot engage in ideological cooperation with the Western countries.

Apart from these problems, Canada has been a receptive country for Iranian youth community, and holds a lot of attraction for educated Iranians. According to Hamid Mohammadi, Iran’s former cultural advisor in Canada, due to high wave of immigration in recent years from Iran to Canada, the second generation of Iranians in Canada now occupy important posts and are considered among the most influential and effective immigrants in the Canadian society, so that, some periodicals published by Iranian Canadians, including the Shahrvand (Citizen), have been in print for about 25 years.

The well-established position of Iranians in Canada has increased their self-confidence and even encouraged them to enter the country’s political arena during recent years.

Therefore, to the opposite of the viewpoint held by the former Canadian ambassador to Iran, John Mundy, who said when diplomatic relations between two countries are suspended, their resumption becomes more difficult, I believe that under present conditions, political will and the impact of the public opinion are of the same importance under two democratic systems. At the present juncture, the political will as well as the public opinion in the two countries are ready to accept reestablishment of diplomatic ties between Tehran and Ottawa, and therefore, this must not be much of a difficulty. The main issue that may be difficult and time-consuming is to elevate the level of the two countries’ relations and reduce vacillations in their ties. This is true because due to their historical and ideological background, the two countries act within different contexts, as a result of which the possibility of further misunderstanding is quite high.

It seems that at the present juncture both actors must control their behaviors in order to pave the way for their relations to be reestablished. Following reestablishment of bilateral ties, a policy for controlling relations must govern their ties for a long time until confidence building is achieved.

The history of the two countries’ relations shows that under conditions of mutual distrust, the sole result of having diplomatic relations is to spend a lot of energy on and direct the two countries’ political will at reducing misunderstandings.

However, there are many grounds for economic cooperation between Iran and Canada, especially in such fields of energy, agriculture, industry, health care, urban transportation and so forth. Therefore, in the light of these fertile grounds, if both governments show necessary political will, there will be a bright outlook for improvement and promotion of relations between Tehran and Ottawa in the period that follows removal of sanctions against Iran after conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action between the Islamic Republic and six world powers.

Key Words: Iran, Canada, Relations, Normalization, Stephen Harper, Iran’s Foreign Policy, Syria, Israel, Nuclear Program, Human Rights, Economic Cooperation, US, Bilateral Ties, Political Will, Public Opinion, Iranian Canadians, Middle East, Ottawa’s Foreign Policy, Kebriaeezadeh

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*Photo Credit: Foreign Policy Concepts