The earth moved Sunday in Geneva when the United States, its P5 plus 1 negotiating partners and Iran came to an interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Only time will tell whether it is the start of a longer affair or just a one-night stand that both sides will later regret. If the romance blooms, Canada should reassess its own dysfunctional relationship with Iran before we are left behind by our partners.
The interim agreement rolls back some important parts of Iran’s nuclear program, enlarges somewhat the theoretical ‘break-out’ time period that Iran would need to produce enough nuclear fuel for a weapon and provides for greater inspection of Iran’s nuclear facilities. In return, Iran gets some limited relief from sanctions. The parties have also committed to a six-month negotiating process aimed at settling the nuclear issue.
The agreement is a success for President Barack Obama’s two-track policy. For the past several years he kept the military option against Iran on the table while also convincing the international community to increase economic sanctions on Iran. This was his pressure track.
At the same time he eschewed a policy of regime change towards Iran and along with its P5 plus 1 partners, sought a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue. This was his diplomatic track.
The two tracks of American policy brought Iran to the table, but for a long time they failed to produce a viable agreement. Again and again as the international community increased sanctions, Iran responded by expanding its nuclear program. This would have eventually led to a showdown. At the very least the agreement in Geneva has temporarily stopped the drift towards confrontation and improved the chances for a peaceful resolution of the issue.
It only came about because the Iranian people ignored international calls to boycott the presidential elections and instead voted massively in favour of the only candidate, Hassan Rouhani, who argued for engagement with the international community. This was a mandate for change that Iran’s hardliners could not ignore.
The interim agreement is also a success for Mr. Rouhani. At the United Nations in September he made it clear that Iran would retain nuclear enrichment but also said that Iran would act to remove concerns about its nuclear program. The interim agreement just announced is consistent with that position; indeed it is consistent with the offer that Mr. Rouhani made to the Europeans a decade ago. Mr. Rouhani has negotiated the first, very modest reversal in international sanctions, while still preserving a reduced nuclear enrichment program on Iranian soil. This was one of his key election promises and he has delivered.
Now comes the hard part. The deal must be implemented and it must lead to further negotiations aimed at a lasting and fully verifiable settlement of Iran’s nuclear issue.
What can Canada do to help? The answer is – not very much – because Canada suspended diplomatic relations with Iran last year and has no functioning relationship with the country. To paraphrase former prime minister Joe Clark, we lectured Iran and left.
It’s hard to understand why our government did so, because our current position on the interim agreement is not that different from the P5 plus 1 group. In his press conference on Nov. 24, Foreign Minister John Baird provided cautious support for the interim agreement while maintaining a healthy skepticism. Iran has cheated in the past and it is right to insist on stringent inspections. While our tone towards Iran remains unnecessarily hostile, in substance our position on the interim agreement appears to be closer to the United States than Israel, who lost no time in denouncing it as an historic mistake.
Even our tone towards Iran has become slightly more measured. In his press conference, Mr. Baird refrained from insulting Mr. Rouhani in public. This has to be considered as progress for Canada-Iran relations because as recently as last June in Israel, he was openly contemptuous of Iran’s new president and tried to set a three-month deadline on the nuclear negotiations.
Where Canada remains out of step with both the United States and the United Kingdom is the almost complete dysfunction of our bilateral relationship with Iran. Neither Canada nor the United Kingdom nor the United States has a diplomatic presence on the ground in Tehran. But both our allies have found a way to develop a functioning relationship with Iran based on sustained high-level contact and a reasonable amount of personal civility in how they interact with Iran’s leaders.
As our partners move forwards towards the implementation of the interim agreement Canadian should begin asking our government why Canada can’t re-engage with Iran ourselves. We owe it to our own Iranian community, which wants to maintain contact with their loved ones back home and to the imprisoned Canadian citizens which our government abandoned when we pulled out of Tehran last September.
John Mundy is a retired Canadian diplomat who served as Canada’s last ambassador to Iran. He is a currently at the University of Ottawa, where he is a senior associate at the University's Centre for International Policy Studies.