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Seven steps for reopening an embassy in Tehran

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion has publicly confirmed Canada's desire to reopen the Canadian embassy in Tehran that's been shuttered since the Conservative government suddenly cut ties on Sept. 7, 2012. It marks a symbolic end to diplomatic hissing and spitting. Now what?

There's still a locked Iranian embassy in downtown Ottawa, behind eight-foot bars, with a faded Iranian flag outside – and a beige-brick and stained-glass ambassador's mansion sitting empty in upscale Rockcliffe Park. But Canada lost the lease on its old four-storey concrete embassy building on Shahid Sarafraz Street in Tehran, so it will need a new home for an embassy where secure communications equipment and other special features can be housed.

But reopening an embassy is never as simple as calling movers. There's not just a diplomatic dance, and political sensitivities to watch at home, but protocol and practical steps. Canada's last full ambassador to Iran, John Mundy, thinks it will be many months before the two countries exchange diplomats, and late 2017 before they accredit ambassadors. If all goes well. "We're starting almost from zero," he said.

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So how do you open an embassy in Tehran? A spokesman for the Global Affairs department said there's "no standard approach." But experts say there are some likely steps.

Step one: Signal your intention. Mr. Dion has done that in public, but it could have been done privately. It's a needed signal, because reciprocity is key. Iran not only has to agree, they'll expect an exchange – if we open a big embassy, or consulates, they'll expect the same.

Step two: Send a message. Canada would normally ask the country that's been handling its interests in Iran, Italy, to approach Iran's foreign ministry to organize a meeting to discuss it. University of Ottawa Iran expert Thomas Juneau bets that's already been done – a Global Affairs spokesman would not say.

Step three: Meet. Canadian and Iranian officials hold initial meetings to discuss what steps must come first. That is likely to happen in a neutral location, like New York, where both have sizable diplomatic delegations.

Step four: Hash out the issues. This is where it gets complicated. There may be conditions: Ottawa must decide whether it will press for the release of imprisoned Iranian-Canadians first, or wait until ties are re-established. Canada will want assurances its diplomats will be protected, in a country where embassies have often been attacked. Iran might have conditions, too. Ottawa has already signalled it will lift some sanctions, but Tehran might want more.

One major obstacle is a law passed by the former Conservative government that allows victims of terrorism to sue countries for sponsoring it – the Tories listed Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism. There are almost a dozen suits, but it's not yet clear if the law will stand, or what the fallout will be. Iran won't want to reopen an embassy if it will be slapped with liens. But Ottawa can't provide guarantees, and changing Iran's listing as a terror sponsor would be controversial.

Step five: Send a scouting party. A small team of diplomats will go to Tehran to work out the logistics. That usually includes someone from the property bureau – to find a chancery office, ambassador's residence and staff quarters – and someone to consider the security of those locations.

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That's complicated now that Canada doesn't have an embassy building, Mr. Mundy said. The old one was "horrible," but fit Canada's needs for an embassy with about 50 staff, he said. A new one must have sophisticated secure-communications equipment, in a building that can be secured. Mr. Mundy suspects the first Canadian diplomats to return might open a simple office mainly to work on the real estate job of a new embassy.

Step six: Move in, step by step. The first group of diplomats will be modest and headed by a chargé d'affaires with limited functions that will grow over time. It might be years before Canada re-establishes a full immigration office.

Step seven: Appoint full ambassadors. It's the symbolic step that relations are fully functional. But it takes agreement: when Canada rejected several of Iran's nominees for ambassador in Ottawa in 2007, Mr. Mundy was expelled.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More


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