The Canadians want to turn the page with Iran. And they’re taking a very different approach than their friends in the United States.
Months after it went into effect, the Iran nuclear deal brokered by the Obama administration is attracting no small amount of flak, with some of the criticism even coming from the two signatories themselves.
President Barack Obama recently faulted Tehran for failing to live up to the spirit of the nuclear deal by continuing with actions like its most recent round of missile tests. Meanwhile, Iranian leaders have dismissed the notion that the nuclear agreement would mark the start of a new closer relationship between the Islamic Republic and its longtime US enemies.
A closer relationship is precisely what Canada's Justin Trudeau wants.
Four years ago, it was a different story. The previous Canadian government — led by the Conservative Party — abruptly closed its embassy in Tehran and cut off diplomatic relations with the Iranians.
Now, Trudeau's Liberal Party is running the show in Canada. And the government says it wants to normalize relations with Iran.
Conservative Party leaders in Ottawa gave several reasons for abruptly cutting off relations with Iran in 2012. They cited Iran’s nuclear activities, its funding for Middle East terrorist groups, and its threats against the State of Israel. That might sound like solid reasoning. But Stephane Dion, the new Canadian foreign minister, says it was all a big mistake.
“Canada’s severing of ties with Iran had no positive consequences for anyone: not for Canadians, not for the people of Iran, not for Israel, and not for global security,” Dion said last month.
Currently, official Canadian business with Iran is conducted with the help of Italian diplomats in Iran. Dion said the arrangement doesn’t make sense.
“Let’s not forget that the world was lucky that Canada had an embassy in Iran at the end of the 1970s so it could come to the aid of the American hostages. Two films have been made about this, one not very good, made by Hollywood, and the other much better, called Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper.”
Soudeh Ghasemi agrees with Dion’s assessment. She’s a 32-year-old accountant, born in Iran, who lives and works in Toronto. More than anything, Ghasemi says closing the Canadian embassy in Tehran has effectively punished ordinary Iranian Canadians and their relatives who still live in the Islamic Republic.
“Like my grandparents,” she says. “They came to Canada before, once, when the Canadian embassy was open in Iran. But they can’t do that anymore, because they can’t travel to Turkey to get ... paperwork done.”
Toronto is home to about 100,000 Iranians who settled in the area in waves over the decades, going back even before the 1979 Iranian revolution. And for them, too, the closing of the Iranian embassy in Canada has meant headaches.
When Iranians in Canada need to get official paperwork sorted out for travelling to Iran or doing business there, the closest place they can do it is Washington, DC. The Pakistani Embassy there contains an Iranian Interests Section, which functions as a de facto diplomatic outpost for Iran’s government in the US — and since the closure of the embassy in Ottawa, Canada as well.
And for Iranians, getting a visa to enter the US is rarely easy. But Bijan Ahmadi, a 29-year-old Toronto real estate developer who was born in Iran, says this is not just a matter of convenience.
“Establishing a dialogue and diplomatic relations between Iran and Canada, it does not mean that these two countries are each other’s friends,” Ahmadi says. “It just means that there is a dialogue between these two countries. Both of them can actually stand on their positions regarding different issues and still talk to each other.”
That is how you how you get things done, says Ahmadi and other like-minded Iranian Canadians. It’s also how you promote human rights in a country with a dismal track record like Iran’s. Besides, it’s good for business, too.
Ahmadi and Ghasemi are both board members with a networking group in Toronto called the Iranian-Canadian Congress. They pointed out that their opinions represent their own views and not the official position of the organization.
About once a month, the group sponsors a pub night for members and others to get together and have drinks, hang out and get to know each other. Arman Ahmadi (no relation to Bijan) is a 34-year-old banker who recently became a Canadian citizen. At a recent pub night event, he told me how excited he is about doing business with Iran.
“Not just in banking, but also in every other industry,” he said. “There are major opportunities for Canadian companies in Iran.”
“Iran has been deprived of investments for three decades now and there is like huge potential for growth,” Ahmadi said.
Other young Iranians in Canada agree that the sky’s the limit. They look at Iran and see a country that’s beginning to access to the global financial system and see great promise.
But not everyone is so sanguine.
Ardeshir Zarezadeh works on immigration issues in Toronto. He’s also an outspoken advocate for human rights inside Iran, in part because of what he went through himself.
“I was a leading student activist back in the country for years. And I had a role in Iranian student uprising in July 1999,” Zarezadeh said. “I was arrested 12 times. I spent two years in solitary confinement. I got seven years' jail sentence. And I had to flee the country.”
Zarezadeh said that having a dialogue with Iran is fine, but he thinks the regime in Tehran is not capable of real reform. Canada needs to be aware of this, he said, and not be naïve.
Zarezadeh said he wants Canada, the US and the rest of the international community to put more pressure on Iran to make fundamental changes in the way the government treats its people. He worries that doing business and making nice with Iran could end up giving the regime a free pass.