Centre for International and Defence Policy

Centre for International and Defence Policy
Centre for International and Defence Policy

“Former diplomats and experts at odds over potential Canadian re-engagement with Tehran”

Niel Moss, The Hill Times
20 January 2020 (read the complete article)

Does the downing of Flight 752 and the deaths of 57 Canadians in Iran present a catalyst to restart Canada’s diplomatic relationship with Iran? Foreign policy experts and former diplomats have mixed views on whether the attack on the aircraft shows a needs to have diplomats on the ground in Tehran.

Former diplomats who are in favour argue that Canada needs to be communicating with everyone, but other foreign policy experts say the Iranian government will take such a re-engagement as a victory.

Dennis Horak, Canada’s last ambassador in Tehran, told The Hill Times in a phone interview last week that the Canadian government should move towards restoring diplomatic ties, but take the appropriate time to do so.

“Everything that has happened over the last couple of weeks, it should be a reminder that it is important for Canada be present in a better way, in a fuller way in that part of the world,” said Mr. Horak, who served as ambassador to Iran from 2009 to 2012, adding that means re-opening Canada’s embassy in Iran and improving ties with Saudi Arabia.

“We are a G20 country—we are a G7 country—these [Iran and Saudi Arabia] are important countries in an important region. That’s been demonstrated in the past couple of weeks, in the past several months. And it’s about time we stopped playing shorthanded in that part of the world,” he said.

Mr. Horak later became the director of the Middle East division at the then-Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade from 2012 to 2015, and then ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2015 until being expelled from Riyadh in 2018 as a result of a diplomat spat.

Dennis Horak says Canada needs to be present in a ‘fuller way’ in the Middle East. The Hill Times photograph by Samantha Wright Allen

Calls for re-establishing diplomatic relations come in response to Iran’s downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on Jan 8, killing all 176 onboard including 57 Canadians. Iran has said its military shot down the aircraft by mistake.

Diplomatic relations with Iran were cut by the Harper government in 2012. At the time, then-foreign affairs minister John Baird cited Iran’s treatment of foreign diplomats, its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, threats against Israel, and failing to comply with UN resolutions regarding its nuclear program as reasons for the move.

“I don’t think opening tomorrow is a good idea or even possible,” Mr. Horak said, adding that Canada is making first steps with high-level talks and having Canadian officials on the ground for the first time in years.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) told reporters on Jan. 17 that the immediate focus of the Canadian government is on getting answers for the families of victims.

“There will be many questions we will have to reflect on in the coming months on relations with Iran,” Mr. Trudeau said. “Right now we are focused on doing everything we can to get answers and support to those families.”

Despite having no formal diplomatic representation in the country, there have been rare high-level talks between Canada and Iran since the downing of Flight 752, including between Mr. Trudeau and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as well as three conversations between Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne (Saint-Maurice-Champlain, Que.) and Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, which included a meeting on Jan. 17 in Muscat, Oman.

The ministers discussed the “necessity of full access” for Canadian officials to provide consular services, assist in ensuring victim identification meets international standards, and participate in a complete and transparent investigation of the plane’s downing, according to a Global Affairs readout of the meeting.

Canada has sent a Standing Rapid Deployment Team to provide consular services in Iran, and Transportation Safety Board Officials were sent to Tehran to help assist Iran in its investigation of the plane’s downing.

Mr. Horak said the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which was implemented by the Harper government in 2012, is one barrier to a restoration of diplomatic relations. He said that act contributed to the closure of the embassy due to security concerns.

The act allows victims of terrorist acts—including non-Canadians—to sue state sponsors of terrorism for a country’s non-diplomatic assets in Canada, such as cultural centres.

“The idea that we could have stayed in Tehran while we were seizing Iranian assets in Canada—[while keeping] the embassy safe in Tehran—was just unrealistic, which is what prompted the closure,” Mr. Horak said. “The fact that the embassy closed the very same days the legislation came into effect in September is pretty illustrative of that reality.”

Canada’s focus should remain on helping the families of those who died in the attack, said Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and  University of Waterloo political science professor. She added that it is the wrong time to restore diplomatic relations with Iran.

“It would be a symbolic win for the Iranian regime,” she said. “Under this particular circumstance when the government is at fault for shooting down this plane, why would we reward the Iranian regime with re-establishing diplomatic status? I mean, this is the worst time to do that.”

Prof. Momani said the appropriate thing for Canada to do is what is being done currently, with high-level talks between the two countries.

Canada needs to put aside pride and preferences to address what the families of the victims need most—to retrieve the bodies of the victims, she said.

Mr. Trudeau announced on Jan. 17 that Canada would be giving families of Canadian victims $25,000 per victim to deal with immediate needs, such as for funeral costs and travel expenses, but that payment doesn’t include the money that “will come and should should come from Iran in due course.”

Kaveh Shahrooz, human rights activist and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said restoring diplomatic relations would be viewed as a reward for Iran.

“Diplomatic relations with them only emboldens them in some way,” he said. “I think restoring diplomatic relations with Iran should be viewed as some kind of reward and at the moment we have nothing to reward Iran for.”

Mr. Horak said there is “a risk” that a restoration of relations would be “viewed or spun” in a binary-sense as a victory for Iran, especially in the current moment.

He said in the future, when Canada’s diplomatic presence in the region is evaluated, the proper groundwork can be laid to make clear any resumption of diplomatic relations is not a reward.

“Diplomatic relations are not a reward for good behaviour. And that will take some doing, it will take some political will,” he said.

Jeremy Kinsman, a former Canadian ambassador to Russia and the United Kingdom, and fellow former diplomat Colin Robertson told The Hill Times last week that Canada should be re-engaging with Iran, and the downing of Flight 752 could provide the footing for that to happen.

Mr. Kinsman said the return of diplomatic relations isn’t a “seal of approval,” but rather it’s about communicating with another country.

Chris Kilford, a fellow at the Queen’s University Centre for International and Defence Policy, said if Canada has representation in a country, it can more strongly effect change.

“If your staff doesn’t have the people on the ground, it’s a problem,” said Mr. Kilford, a former defence attaché at Canada’s embassy in Turkey.

He added that there should be a re-evaluation of Canada’s presence in the Middle East, to establish what role Canada should have in the region.

“We need to think about … how we’re going to manage things in the future, and that may lead to establishing diplomatic relations with different governments that we don’t have relations with,” Mr. Kilford said. “I think there’s a catalyst.”