Monday, 2 May 2016
OTTAWA — While Canadian officials have been quietly negotiating with Iran about re-opening Canada’s embassy in Tehran, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion says the Liberal government isn’t about to stop calling the Islamic Republic a state sponsor of terror.
Canadian officials and their Iranian counterparts have held preliminary talks aimed at re-establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries after the previous Conservative government severed ties in 2012.
The discussions, which have not yet reached the political level, include getting assurances from the Iranian government that Canadian diplomats will be safe inside the country. The Conservatives cited safety concerns as one reason the Canadian embassy was closed four years ago.
But another reason relations were cut was Iran’s inclusion on the Conservative government’s newly created list of state terrorist sponsors, which opened the door to terrorism victims or their families launching lawsuits against the Iranian government in Canadian courts. The only other country on the list is Syria.
The designation makes re-engagement with Iran more difficult as it effectively accuses the Islamic Republic of aiding and abetting terrorist groups, but removing it could be difficult politically. Canada’s largest Jewish lobby group, for example, has strongly supported the designation.
On Monday, the opposition Conservatives asked whether the government is planning to remove the designation. The questions coincided with the launch of what the Tories are calling Iran Accountability Week, during which they plan to urge the Liberals not to re-engage with the country.
“Iran is widely considered the world’s pre-eminent sponsor of state terrorism through its support of groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas,” Conservative foreign affairs critic Tony Clement said during question period. “Will the Liberals do the right thing and commit to keeping Iran designated as a state sponsor of terror?”
“We have no current plans to remove Iran from the list of state supporters of terrorism under the State Immunity Act,” Dion replied. “(It’s) inclusion or exclusion in the future will be based on the actions of the Iranian government.”
But Dion also defended the government’s plan to re-engage with Iran, calling the Conservative government’s decision to withdraw from the country a “mistake.”
“The situation is no better in terms of human rights in Iran,” he said in French. “The situation in Israel is not better. We are not in a position to help our allies, nor help Canadian interests, Canadian families and Iranian-Canadians because of the empty-chair policy.”
Dion has previously said re-engagement will take time. In an interview last month, he told the Ottawa Citizen the government has not yet secured a new building for an embassy in Tehran. The minister has described the re-engagement as a “step-by-step process.”
While the Canadian government has been taking its time re-establishing ties with Iran since the Islamic Republic completed a nuclear agreement with the U.S. and other powers earlier this year, some of Canada’s closest friends and allies have been rushing to break into the Iranian market.
On Monday, South Korea became the latest country to sign a trade deal with Iran. Some European nations have also held dozens of trade missions to Iran to take advantage of the country’s massive infrastructure needs.
Dion has worried about Canadian companies being left behind.
But speaking earlier in the day on Monday, as he launched Iran Accountability Week, Clement said Canada should “be a voice in the international discussions that are going on to ensure we are taking the go-slow approach to lifting sanctions.”