The Current

In wake of Iran protests, should Canada reopen embassy in Tehran?

Iranians protesting their own government have sparked some difficult questions for Canada about how to react to and engage with the country.
Iranians protesting their own government have sparked some difficult questions for Canada about how to react to and engage with the country. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

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The Iranian government's recent crackdown on protesters is renewing the debate around Canada's diplomatic relations with the country, in particular Justin Trudeau's 2015 election promise to reopen an embassy in Tehran.

The largest anti-government protest since 2009 began on Dec. 28, spreading to dozens of cities across the country — and the Iranian government's response has been brutal. At least 22 protesters have been killed and according to rights groups, more than a 1,000 people have been detained.

In the wake of protesters' deaths in Iran, a spokesperson for Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has called the violence "deeply troubling" but confirmed Canada will "continue to engage with Iran, on terms that we set." 

According to Toronto-based lawyer and human rights activist Kaveh Shahrooz, Canada's response to Iran's crackdown on protesters came too late and says it was half-hearted.

"It didn't really touch on the substance of the protest. It didn't actually side with the protesters and echo the grievances that they have been shouting about in the streets and getting killed for in the streets," he tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

In this photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, university students attend a protest inside Tehran University while a smoke grenade is thrown by anti-riot Iranian police, in Tehran, Iran, Dec. 30, 2017. (Associated Press)

Shahrooz argues Canada should be pushing the Iranian government on the issue of human rights, noting that he does not see this happening.

"The prime minister has been silent. He hasn't actually spoken up about human rights or Canadian values or anything of that sort," Shahrooz explains.

This is a dictatorship. It's not news to them that this is not a democracy that will suppress violence.-  Thomas Juneau, former analyst, Department of National Defence

"The Iranian regime ... this is a theocracy, a democratic dictatorship that's been in place for 40 years, in a government that has a lot of blood on its hands, and you know it's Canada's duty I think, its obligation to speak out forcefully for the protection of human rights in that country."

A domestic political debate

The events of the last two weeks in Iran hasn't altered "the fundamental calculus that we should have diplomatic relations," in Thomas Juneau's view. 

"This is a dictatorship. It's not news to them that this is not a democracy that will suppress violence," the former Department of National Defence analyst argues.

"It's not nice to see these things going on, as its been since late December, but at the same time, the fundamental calculus that we should have diplomatic relations with Iran doesn't change."

In March 2016, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the wisdom of re-engaging with Iran, he said: 'When you disagree with someone, when someone represents a threat to global security, or certainly regional security, you need to be engaging with them. You need to have opportunities to put pressure, to tell them where they're going wrong, to tell them how to start going right.' (Adrian Wlyd/Canadian Press)

Juneau tells Tremonti that debating the level of an appropriate response from the Iranian government toward protesters is inconsequential.

"Ultimately whatever Canada says — and at this point, we're only saying something, we're not doing anything — whatever we say it's really a domestic political debate that doesn't have much bearing on what actually goes on in Iran."

He says that Canada does have something to gain from reopening an embassy in Tehran, particularly in the area of trade, where he sees "not huge, but real" opportunities.

"Without an embassy on the ground we are really behind, especially European but also Asian countries, who are trying very cautiously to reintegrate the Iranian market," he says.

Shahrooz disagrees: "Yes trade is important, but at what cost?" he asks.

"Whose hand are we willing to shake in order to get trade deals?" Shahrooz says. "Unfortunately we would be doing business with people that Canada has recognized as having committed crimes against humanity. I think that's very dangerous."

Canada condemns violence in Iran

For the Iranian-Canadians wanting Ottawa to be doing more to support protesters on the streets of Iran, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Omar Alghabra, says the country does stands in solidarity with them.

"Canada is deeply, deeply troubled by the oppression that protesters have been facing in Iran,"  Alghabra tells Tremonti.

He argues Canada responded to the Iran protests swiftly.

"We were one of the first countries that actually issued a statement on Dec. 30th condemning the violence that protesters have faced on the streets of Iran," he explains, adding that on Jan. 3, another statement came out from Minister Freeland.

"So we stand in solidarity with people who want to walk in the streets to express their political opinions peacefully. And we call on Iran to adhere to its international human rights obligations."

Listen to the full segment near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson, Josh Bloch and Idella Sturino.