The Canadian government appears prepared to lift some sanctions against Iran – with Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion saying businesses in Canada would be at a disadvantage if Ottawa doesn't join major powers in removing barriers to commerce with Tehran.
The U.S. and EU repealed broad sanctions against Iran this weekend after confirmation by the United Nations that the country was complying with last summer's deal to curb its ambitions for nuclear weapons. Shortly after those developments, Iran released four U.S. prisoners, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, in exchange for pardons or charges dropped against seven Iranians.
Mr. Dion stressed Sunday that no decision has been made on sanctions yet and that it would be up to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet to greenlight any move to follow the lead of Washington and Brussels in rolling back broad economic sanctions.
Speaking Sunday at a Liberal government cabinet retreat in southwestern New Brunswick, Mr. Dion said Canada must decide "in a timely fashion" so that Canadian companies are not at a loss in the rush to resume business with Iran, where billions of dollars of economic opportunity are opening up.
"Because if other countries move before us, it's not a way to help our industry," Mr. Dion said.
The Foreign Minister voiced concern over leaving the sanctions in place, saying it would create a "situation where Canadian companies would be alone in not having access" to the Iranian market. He said Canada's broad economic sanctions would not be particularly effective if they stay in effect while other countries lift their measures.
However, less than 24 hours after lifting some sanctions, Washington imposed a set of limited new sanctions against some Iranian citizens and companies for a recent ballistic missile test in violation of a United Nations resolution.
It was only after the U.S. secured the release from Iran of American prisoners, including Mr. Rezaian, and the plane carrying them had left Iran, that the White House announced the new, targeted measures.
Over the years, Canada's sanctions against Iran have grown to include not only the four rounds of penalties designed to block trade in nuclear goods and conventional weapons but also special economic measures designed to thwart nearly all commerce with this country, such as petroleum, ships, mining, telecommunications and metals. Investment flows are also blocked between the two countries.
Mr. Dion said rebuilding trade with Iran would not generate quick returns. "It cannot be done overnight … to create links."
Mr. Trudeau's government is making plans to expand diplomatic relations with Iran – a major reversal of Canada's policy toward Tehran. In 2012, the former Harper government suspended diplomatic relations with Iran and closed Canada's embassy there.
The Liberal Leader said before the October election that he would like to reopen Canada's embassy in Tehran.
Tory foreign affairs critic Tony Clement said Canada should delay any lifting of sanctions with Iran until Tehran has proven it's capable of sticking to the terms of the 2015 accord to restrict its nuclear program.
Mr. Clement is also calling on the Liberals to match the new targeted U.S. sanctions levied against Iranian individuals and companies over the October 2015 test of ballistic missile believed to be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
"We're very much opposed to showing goodwill to a regime that has habitually disregarded UN. resolutions and the international community and has sponsored terrorism as state policy."
On Sunday, the United States imposed sanctions on 11 companies and individuals for supplying Iran's ballistic missile program. U.S. officials and congressional sources said President Barack Obama's administration had held back from taking action for more than two weeks during the tense negotiations that ultimately freed five Americans under a prisoner swap.
The U.S. Treasury Department said it had blacklisted the UAE-based Mabrooka Trading, and its owner Hossein Pournaghshband for helping Iran produce carbon fiber for the program. Financial institutions and companies are barred from dealing with those on the U.S. blacklist.
The International Atomic Energy Agency's declaration on the weekend unlocked some $100-billion (U.S.) in frozen Iranian assets overseas, and potentially even greater economic benefits through suspended oil, trade and financial sanctions by the U.S. and European Union.
Critics of U.S. President Barack Obama's Iran policy at home and abroad pounced on the details of the prisoner exchange and the new economic opportunities being afforded Tehran while it still supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government and the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
"This deal is a problematic deal, and it reflects a pattern we have seen in the Obama administration over and over again of negotiating with terrorists, and making deals and trades that endanger U.S. safety and security," Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a GOP presidential candidate, said on Fox News Sunday.
Nevertheless, the back-to-back breakthroughs reflected painstaking diplomacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and administration officials.
The efforts were beset by several hitches, including the detention of 10 U.S. sailors by Iran last week in the Persian Gulf.
U.S. and Iranian officials hashed out the prisoner exchange in 11 or 12 meetings over a process that took a little longer than a year, sprouting from the even longer set of talks that led to last July's landmark nuclear accord.
With reports from Reuters and Associated Press