When a new president was elected in Iran, the Harper government made sure the bridges stayed burned. It has put the Conservatives offside with Iranian reformers.
Since Sunday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has been receiving e-mails from within the Iranian diaspora complaining about his response to the presidential vote in Iran that picked centrist Hassan Rowhani. The Canadian statement has provoked calls to the offices of BBC Persian, the Farsi-language TV network with a big audience in Iran and among expats, and a buzz of pique on Twitter, blogs and Facebook.
Why? Allies in the United States and Europe responded with a cautious welcome to Friday’s election. Canada, alone among Western nations, took a hard line matched only by Israel. Mr. Baird dismissed the election, a serious matter for Iranian reformers, as “meaningless.”
This Canadian government has always loved to take an unyielding stand against Iran’s Islamist regime, and burned the last bridges to Tehran when it cut off diplomatic ties last year. But amazingly, it has now annoyed a wide swath of regime opponents, including many Iranian-Canadians.
Mr. Rowhani’s election was viewed by reformers as a surprising tweak of the nose for the regime and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mr. Rowhani is no radical reformer. He was one of six candidates approved by the regime’s Guardian Council, which disqualified hundreds, so it was by no means a free election. The president doesn’t wield full power; the supreme leader has control.
But Iranian reformers know that. For a long time it seemed they might boycott the election. But they didn’t. They decided to back the best of a limited lot, Mr. Rowhani, in a last-week groundswell. Instead of an expected runoff between conservatives, Mr. Rowhani won more than 50 per cent on the first ballot. Reformers celebrated.
Canada’s allies responded with a degree of openness, even as they noted the elections were not really free and fair. “Despite these challenges,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, “the Iranian people have clearly expressed their desire for a new and better future.” France, Germany and the EU extended olive branches, offering to work with Mr. Rowhani.
But Mr. Baird dismissed the president-elect as another puppet. “Given the regime’s manipulation of the collective will and democratic process, the results of the June 14 vote are effectively meaningless,” he said in a statement.
When the BBC Persian TV network aired that response, people started calling, said Bahman Kalbasi, a New York-based producer with the network. There was criticism on Twitter. Toronto blogger Aida Ahadiany, who left Iran 10 years ago, posted a form letter complaining about Mr. Baird’s easy dismissal of a result many Iranian reformers worked for; many sent it. When she put it on her Facebook page Tuesday, more than 100 people shared it.
Despite the flaws, Iranians took the vote seriously because even a modicum of change from conservatives like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is important to their lives, said Mehrdad Hariri, a founder of the Iranian Canadian Congress who has been active in human-rights issues. Mr. Baird’s statement, he said, “wasn’t wise.”
Now, it’s not at all crazy for Ottawa to doubt that Mr. Rowhani will really back down on Tehran’s nuclear program, or that he even has the power to do so. Mr. Hariri, for example, believes there’s just a small possibility that Ayatollah Khamenei, seeing the public desire for the easing of sanctions, will use Mr. Rowhani’s election as an excuse to back off, but just maybe.
Still, if Ottawa dismisses grassroots campaigns and all hope of gradual change, it doesn’t leave many options other than sudden revolution and foreign bombing.
Just as telling, it flies in the face of the approach Ottawa is taking to Iran now. With diplomatic ties cut, the government has funded digital efforts to link reformers inside Iran with the diaspora in Canada and elsewhere, with conferences and, most recently, an online election-observation centre, complete with a map of election-abuse incidents and streamed election-night broadcasts.
This was a government that had decided to talk directly to Iranians to foster change. And then Mr. Baird’s haughty statement dismissed the elections, the reformers and the diaspora.