The Trudeau government has made no secret of its desire to re-engage with Iran — it was even a campaign promise — and now Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane​ Dion has confirmed to CBC News that preliminary contact has been made.

In 2012, the Harper administration cut ties with Tehran and expelled Iranian diplomats from Canada. 

"Talks have started, yes, at the official level," Dion said Friday. There has been speculation the discussions took place in New York City, where the two countries have political delegations.

"I will not comment," the foreign minister said when asked about a possible location. "But the usual way by which countries who want to recreate links proceed, is step by step, at the official level in neutral territory."

Iran's ambassador the United Nations declined to comment when asked whether the talks were happening between the two country's missions to the UN.

The Harper government also added Iran to its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

"We have no plans to change this," said Dion, unless Iran becomes a "respectful democracy."

Dion was at pains to clarify that engaging with Tehran did not signify agreement with its policies.

ML Syria

Dion cites a range of issues, including Iran's human rights record and its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as areas of concern. (SANA via The Associated Press)

He cited Iran's human rights record, its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah, as well as its threats against Israel as areas where Canada still has "huge problems" with Iran.

Italy has been handling Canada's interests in the country since ties were cut four years ago, a situation Dion calls "absurd."

"Thank God we have the help of the Italians but it would be much better if Canada were able to help itself as a country."

"How can you help this region if you don't have the ability to be in Iran, to work with the people of good faith there … move this government toward something more acceptable," Dion said. "Canada needs to be involved and it's what our allies are asking us to do."

In February, the Liberal government announced it was lifting some sanctions against Iran, but that others would stay in place. 

Dion would not speculate on the type of diplomatic presence Canada might pursue in Tehran, but added that an embassy was not a likelihood in the near future.

"I would say it's step by step — and an embassy cannot be a first step."

Working on Homa Hoodfar's case 

On CBC's Power & PoliticsDion said Friday that the Canadian government is working on the case of Homa Hoodfar, a Montreal-based professor who is being held in Iran's Evin prison. 

Hoodfar's family, who say the anthropology professor was in the country to do research and see relatives, have expressed concern about the 65-year-old's health and well-being.

Dion told host Rosemary Barton that he and the prime minister both want to see Hoodfar freed "as soon as we can" and that the government is doing everything it can to protect her under the circumstances.

He said not having an embassy and having to work through other friendly countries has been a challenge, but that the government "will do everything we can because we have a lot of concern about her situation."