(Media Release) Critics say opposition to Iranian nuclear deal isolates Ottawa and reflects short-sighted position on Middle East.
As countries around the world welcomed last month’s deal on Iran’s nuclear programme as a step towards better relations between Iran and Western powers, one of the few dissenting voices came from an unexpected place: Canada.
John Baird, the country’s foreign affairs minister, said he was “deeply sceptical” of the agreement reached on November 24, and vowed that Canada would maintain economic sanctions on Tehran despite the deal.
“Simply put: Iran has not earned the right to have the benefit of the doubt,” Baird said.
The interim agreement was reached between Iran and the “P5+1″ countries – the US, UK, France, China and Russia, plus Germany. The deal eases economic sanctions on Tehran, while limiting its nuclear programme. This includes stopping work on its heavy water facility at Arak and neutralising uranium enriched above five percent.
While Canada’s hardline position came as little surprise to those familiar with Canada’s conservative government, to some, Baird’s pronouncements highlighted just how disconnected Ottawa has become.
“We did have a tradition of playing a helpful role in terms of stimulating conversations between people… It was quiet [and] gave us a certain entrée into the [Middle East] region and commanded a certain respect. We’ve lost that now,” said Dr Peter Jones, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.
“This government doesn’t really care. This is all about domestic politics in Canada. It doesn’t care if its statements make us essentially irrelevant in the Middle East,” Jones told Al Jazeera.
Canada’s ministry of foreign affairs directed Al Jazeera to a written statement by Minister Baird when contacted for an interview about its stance on the Iran deal. ”The Iranian people deserve the freedom and prosperity that they have been denied for too long by the regime’s nuclear ambitions. Until then, Canadian sanctions will remain tough, and in full force,” Baird said in the statement.
Canada maintains a complete ban on imports and exports with Iran, including natural gas, oil and petroleum. In addition to UN-backed sanctions, Canada also implemented restrictions under the Special Economic Measures Act, which added dozens of individuals to a banned list, and prohibited financial transactions with Iranian institutions.
In July 2012, Toronto Dominion bank abruptly closed the accounts of several Iranian-Canadians, claiming that it had to comply with federal sanctions prohibiting banks from providing financial services that may benefit Iran. Ottawa has expanded economic sanctions against Iran four separate times since 2010.
But whether Canada will be able to maintain sanctions despite the Geneva agreement, as it said it plans to, remains to be seen
“It’s not clear yet if it means they’re actually going to go against the deal that was made in Geneva. Are they going to defy it or not?” said Dr James Devine, a professor of politics and international relations at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick.
Devine told Al Jazeera that while many are puzzled by Canada’s position on Iran, it reflects the government’s neo-conservative line, and “is primarily an ideological position that [Prime Minister] Harper and the core people around him share”.
“They have a very black and white vision of the world… for them the world is, in moral terms, very simple: there’s good guys and there’s bad guys. Iran is a bad guy,” he said.
Since Stephen Harper was first elected as prime minister in 2006, he has pursued a neo-conservative agenda, including ignoring international environmental controls, supporting corporate interests, and launching an aggressive foreign policy that is staunchly pro-Israel and pro-military.
“At least rhetorically, being off-side with Washington and London [on Iran], that is unique. That’s somewhat of a historic precedent,” said Yves Engler, an author of several books, including The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy.
Engler told Al Jazeera that Canada’s position on Iran can be attributed largely to its pro-Israel, and “pro-militaristic, Western domination of the world” position.
“The why is probably a mix of everything from trying to woo some sectors of Canada’s Jewish community, to trying to be a part of a sort of Christian-Zionist milieu, to being quite a big proponent of the arms industry and militarism,” Engler said, adding that both ignorance and apathy among Canadians has allowed Harper to continue with these policies unchallenged.
“The de facto position, the normal Canadian position over the past 50-60 years has been quite strongly pro-imperialist and pro-Israel. It’s not like a complete revolution going on here; it’s just a heightening of a policy already taking place.”
Israel has staunchly opposed efforts to come to a diplomatic solution over Iran’s nuclear programme, and came out strongly against the agreement last month. “The most dangerous regime in the world must not be allowed to have the most dangerous weapon in the world,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said about Iran.
Canada has positioned itself as an unequivocal supporter of Israel in recent years, with Stephen Harper regularly voicing his backing of the far-right Netanyahu government. Canada was one of only nine countries to vote against upgrading Palestine’s status at the UN in 2012.
In an event Sunday announcing his first official visit to Israel next year, Netanyahu sent a video greeting to Harper in which he called him “my good friend Stephen” and “a great friend of the state of Israel and the Jewish people”.
Canada’s stance on the Iranian nuclear deal falls in line with this pro-Israel position.
“Our hope is that Canada’s principled position will influence the thinking of our allies and that as [a] ‘sober second thought’ begins to take hold, others will adopt a position closer to that being articulated by Canada,” said Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs in Toronto.
Fogel told Al Jazeera that Canada’s close relationship to Israel has provided “added sensitivity regarding the threat posed by Iran to regional stability and international security” and that Harper’s position “has been driven by what he understands as clear principles that distinguish between right and wrong, democracy and repression”.
But for others, these ties to Israel are worrying.
In an exclusive interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) on November 7, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif said Canada cannot call itself a “defender of human rights” while blindly supporting Israel.
“That duality, that double standard, does not leave the government of Canada any credibility to talk about human rights,” Zarif said.
Like many Western countries at the time, Canada shared diplomatic ties with Iran when the Shah was in power. After the Islamic Revolution, Canada shut down its embassy. While relations warmed up throughout the 1990s due to the Iran-Iraq war, they were seriously strained in 2003, after Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian photojournalist who was born in Iran, was killed under a cloud of secrecy after being detained and allegedly tortured in an Iranian prison.
Canada denounced Kazemi’s death, and recalled its ambassador to Tehran at the time, but did little else. The Kazemi family’s case against the Iranian government is still making its way through the Canadian legal system.
Canada cut diplomatic ties to Iran in September 2012, expelling Iranian diplomats from the country and shuttered its embassy in Tehran. Only a few months before the diplomatic break, Harper called Iran ”the world’s most serious threat to international peace and security”.
At the same time, the government formally listed Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, calling the country “one of the world’s worst violators of human rights” and accusing it of “sheltering and [providing] material support to terrorist groups”.
“That was a very bold move. They were stepping out ahead of the US on this particular issue in a very obvious way. By announcing it in Russia too… it looked like they wanted to get attention,” Devine explained.
Several Iranian-Canadian groups didn’t respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for interviews.
But cutting diplomatic relations with Tehran has impacted Iranian-Canadians the most, leaving them with little recourse for securing visas or other consular services. In October, Oman announced it would look after Iranian affairs in Canada. But for many, this is still insufficient.
“Once the relations were broken off, it pretty much left Iranian-Canadians out in the cold,” Devine said. “You’ve got this propaganda war going on between the Iranian and Canadian government, which we didn’t see before. I didn’t expect it to get as bad as it has. I don’t think anybody expected it.”