A quiet meeting just off the main floor of the United Nations General Assembly a week ago may have been the turning point in Canada's attempts to secure the release of Iranian-Canadian Homa Hoodfar from a prison in Iran.
It happened in the corner of a large meeting room just after U.S. President Barack Obama finished his final speech to the UN. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his top political staff and foreign policy advisers held a private "pull aside" meeting with the foreign minister of Oman and a small delegation of Omani officials.
The prime minister had reached out to Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah 11 days earlier on Sept. 9 by phone to ask for Oman's help in securing Hoodfar's release from Iran. But this was their first face-to-face meeting, and it appears to have played a critical role in securing the Concordia professor's release.
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Trudeau and bin Abdullah sat next to each other on a cream-coloured couch resting on the worn green carpet covering the floor of the General Assembly. Canada's Ambassador to the UN Marc-Andre Blanchard and John Hannaford, the assistant secretary to cabinet for foreign and defence policy, sat close by.
The meeting lasted about 20 minutes. But a high-level source said that is when "the whole thing started to move."
"After months and months and months of nothing, then it happened," said the source. "He [bin Abdullah] wanted to help and he did."
By Tuesday evening in New York, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion was tweeting that he had met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for the first time to discuss the "status of relations" in the context of the Middle East. The two countries "discussed consular cases," Dion's tweet said.
The Hoodfar case was a barrier to enhancing the two countries' diplomatic relations, something Canada had previously committed to moving ahead on.
"These types of cases make it difficult for diplomatic conversations and diplomatic relations to move forward," Dion's parliamentary secretary Omar Alghabra explained to reporters Monday.
On Friday — just days after those UN meetings — Canada started to receive "cryptic signals" from Oman that Canada would see a "favourable resolution" to its issue within 72 hours. On Monday, Hoodfar was released.
Help from Oman
Canadian officials concluded over the summer that Oman might be able to help them navigate the military and religious aspects of the Iranian government because of the close diplomatic and economic ties between the two countries. This notion was reinforced by the feedback other countries offered during Trudeau's trip to China for the G20.
The advice was clear. Oman knew how to navigate the complex nature of Iran's political, religious and military mix. Canada was already at a disadvantage in talks with Iran because the previous Conservative government had closed the Canadian Embassy and severed diplomatic relations.
In that diplomatic vacuum, Italy has been acting as a go-between for Canada with Iran. Canada was also getting advice from Swiss officials on how to handle the Hoodfar negotiations. But it became increasingly clear, as Canada did its homework and sought advice, that Oman would know how to get the right message to the right person.
Trudeau takes personal interest
The government official said Canada's message was simple. It tied Trudeau's desire to see Hoodfar released with his stated intention of normalizing diplomatic relations with Iran. Trudeau, the source said, made it clear that "a fresh approach was impossible to do with a Canadian citizen held in an Iranian jail for feminism."
The official said Trudeau took a personal interest in the Hoodfar case, much like he did in the recent release of Kevin Garratt from China. Trudeau was willing to use the capital of the Prime Minister's Office to secure the release of a Canadian detained abroad. In doing so, the prime minister ignored some of the advice he received from officials during last year's transition to government during which he was advised to steer clear of consular issues.
The political stakes in all of this were enormous for Trudeau. He made a gamble by promising to re-engage with Iran — a country that Canada still lists as a state sponsor of terrorism. Trudeau has been criticized for that diplomatic approach. But now he can point to a tangible result.
And it couldn't come soon enough for Hoodfar, who had been held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison since June 6. The 65-year-old has a rare neurological disease that causes severe muscle weakness. She was hospitalized at one point during her detention before being returned to her cell.
Canadian officials were told on Saturday that she would be released from prison, but they held their breath until Monday morning when they got official confirmation that her plane had safely landed in Oman.