Andrew Stobo Sniderman was the human-rights policy adviser to former foreign-affairs minister Stéphane Dion and is a visiting researcher at the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa.
“The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them … is ridiculous.” Barack Obama said that in 2008, and Justin Trudeau seemed to agree in 2015 when he campaigned on re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iran.
It was surprising and disappointing, then, to see the Prime Minister and the Liberal Party vote last week in support of a Conservative motion in Parliament that included a call to “cease any and all negotiations or discussions to restore diplomatic relations” with Iran.
For the Liberals, this seems partly a tactical concession to self-righteous posturing by the Conservative Party. But, on the substance, a renunciation of diplomatic relations makes it harder to protect Canadians abroad.
In 2012, the Harper government severed diplomatic relations with Iran, presumably as a way of signalling its extreme disapproval of sponsorship of terrorism, crackdowns on dissent and threats to Israel. Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe that the change made any difference in correcting Iran’s behaviour.
What Stephen Harper understood well (and his successor Andrew Scheer understands still) is that bombastic bravado against bad guys abroad, however useless or even counterproductive, can score political points inside Canada.
The recent Conservative motion about Iran represents the cheapest, most cynical form of politics: seeking partisan advantage at the risk of putting Canadians in real danger.
At this very moment, a Canadian-Iranian named Maryam Mombeini is trapped in Iran and desperately trying to get out. Her husband was arrested on seemingly bogus charges in January and he died under suspicious circumstances in February. Ms. Mombeini has been attempting to return to Canada with her two sons since March.
This is a time, yes, for diplomacy.
How many parliamentarians, in casting their vote, noted the supreme irony of denouncing diplomatic relations at a time when Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland is reportedly reaching out directly to Iran’s Foreign Minister on Ms. Mombeini’s behalf? Ms. Freeland is rightly and zealously pursuing direct talks at the highest level to protect a Canadian who needs help, even as her own party joins a condemnation of re-engagement. This makes no sense.
We must reckon with the practical consequences of severing diplomatic relations. There are many thousands of Iranian-Canadian dual citizens. For these Canadians, an absence of a formal relationship between Canada and Iran impedes the unification of their families through visits by relatives to Canada and bars access to crucial documentation like birth and death certificates.
Most gravely, an absence of diplomatic relations means Canadians have no direct access to consular services in Iran. (Since we shut down our embassy in Tehran, Canada has often relied on Italy as a go-between.)
Last Monday, Omar Alghabra, the Liberal parliamentary-secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, spoke eloquently about the imperative of providing effective consular services to Canadians. He recalled the difficulty the government faced in successfully securing the release from unjust detention of another Iranian-Canadian, Homa Hoodfar, in 2016.
Mr. Alghabra said: “The decision of the Conservative government to shutter our embassy in Iran, of course, made providing this help and advocating for Dr. Hoodfar’s release even more significant a challenge.”
Ms. Mombeini is not the first Iranian-Canadian dual citizen to find herself in urgent need of Canadian assistance, and it is safe to assume more hard cases will follow.
The best way to protect Canadians abroad is by having diplomatic relations with countries that may do us harm. As a rule, when a Canadian is detained, we should negotiate with the state that has the power to release them.
Children may be forgiven for believing that closing their eyes makes things disappear. It is a graver error for Parliament to pretend that avoiding perceived enemies makes them go away.
Not so long ago, Canada chose a wiser course during the most trying of times with the most implacable of foes, when we rightly maintained a relationship with the Soviet Union through the hottest flashes of the Cold War.
Engagement does not guarantee influence, but nor is it complicity. Disengagement, on the other hand, is a recipe for irrelevance.