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Liberals boost Russia, Iran relations, but can ‘sunny ways’ deliver on international stage?

Canada’s Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, January 26, 2016.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Tuesday was a busy day in the annals of Canadian diplomacy. Over the course of the day, Justin Trudeau's government reversed some of the more perplexing steps taken by his predecessor, Stephen Harper.

First, the Liberals joined other Western countries in lowering sanctions against Iran, and indicated they will eventually follow up by reopening the embassy in Tehran that Mr. Harper's government rather whimsically shut in 2012.

Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion also said Tuesday that he wanted to resume something like a normal relationship with Russia, the other great bad-guy nation of the Harper era.

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Restarting relations with Tehran and Moscow – and moving past the black-and-white approach to foreign policy that underlay Mr. Harper's antagonism – is the wise thing to do. Canada was achieving nothing by standing on the sidelines with its thumb down as the United States and Europe moved to re-engage with the Islamic Republic.

Similarly, there are no visible returns (other than a grateful Ukrainian government that happens to be losing the support of its own people) from Mr. Harper's gleeful needling of Vladimir Putin and his regime.

So now we're pen pals again, or will be soon, with Tehran and Moscow. The easy, symbolic moves have been made, generating consternation in some corners, cautious applause in others.

Now comes the hard part: proving that "sunny ways" politics can deliver results on the international stage.

Allowing Canadian companies like Bombardier to compete for contracts in Iran just might create jobs at home. (Iran's human-rights problems remain, but even Mr. Harper had no problem detaching business ties from such worries when it came to countries like Saudi Arabia and China.)

But does a commercial relationship – and eventually a reopened embassy – give us any real clout in Tehran?

Can a Canada that has business ties with both Riyadh and Tehran play any kind of role mediating the dangerous and spreading feud between the main Sunni and Shia Muslim powers?

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If not, Canada may look to have cashed in some of the trust it has built up with long-standing friends like Jordan and Israel (both of whom are worried to see Iran being brought in from the cold while it's in the midst of waging an undisguised proxy war against Western-backed rebels in Syria) in exchange for a few jobs in the aerospace sector.

Similarly, the Liberals will need to show that engaging with Mr. Putin's government can produce results.

In announcing that he intends to try and reopen a dialogue with Moscow, Mr. Dion pointed out that sanctions and posturing had done little to convince Mr. Putin to stop meddling in Ukraine.

"Look, Canada was speaking to the Russians even at the tough time of the Cold War. And now we are not speaking, almost, because of the policy of the former government. In which way is it helping Ukraine? In which way is it helping our interest in the Arctic?" he said in the House of Commons.

It's a line of logic that the Russians – who fondly remember Canada's "middle power" stance during the Cold War – will be delighted to hear. Hours before Mr. Dion spoke, his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, told a press conference in Moscow that he hoped Canada's new government would abandon the "mistakes of predecessors" and adopt a more "pragmatic" approach to ties than Mr. Harper had.

Mr. Lavrov also made plain how wide the gap between Ottawa and Moscow remains. He blamed the Ukrainian-Canadian lobby – rather than legitimate grievances over Russian interference in Ukraine – for Mr. Harper's policies. He stated again that the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, will never be returned to Kiev. And thus Canada's sanctions against Moscow will remain in place for at least the time being.

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Mr. Dion's question will inevitably be turned around at some point: In which way is Canada's improving relationship with Russia helping Ukraine?

As it happens, there may be a door opening for Canada to play a useful role on that front.

Efforts to reach a peace deal in eastern Ukraine – where Russian-backed separatists have wrested a chunk of land away from the central government's control – have thus far been led by Germany and France. But many in Kiev now fear that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande are so preoccupied with trying to prevent the collapse of the European Union that they'll sacrifice Ukraine's interests in order to make a deal with Mr. Putin that ends the sanctions war between Moscow and the West.

Ukraine and Poland (which shares Kiev's worries about Russian expansionism) have been casting about for a new "honest broker," and sources tell The Globe and Mail that Canada – with its spotless record of promoting Ukrainian independence – is precisely the country they have in mind to lead second-track talks.

In other words, a real chance to show that "sunny ways" diplomacy works might just be about to land in Mr. Trudeau's lap. Canada's diplomats need to seize it with gusto.

"Canada is back" needs to mean more than better relations with Mr. Harper's enemies in Moscow and Tehran. Our friends will eventually have to see some returns, too.

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