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In this photo released on Jan. 15, 2021, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, missiles are launched in a drill in Iran.

/The Associated Press

It was only a year ago that 63 Canadians and 75 Canadian residents and family members died when Flight PS752 was shot down over Tehran by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who had earlier fired missiles at a military base in northern Iraq used by Canadian troops.

The presence of a Canada-bound majority on that fatal flight spoke to the size of the Iranian diaspora in Canada – more than 200,000 Canadians of Iranian descent, most from families that fled the regime after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Many have suffered surveillance, harassment and threats from regime agents in Canada.

And at least eight Canadians have been imprisoned in Iran on evidently false charges, tortured and in two cases killed in prison over the past 18 years. One of them, Abdolrasoul Dorri-Esfahani – a negotiator for Iran in the six-country nuclear-peace agreement – remains behind bars today. Like most of these de facto hostages, he is viewed as innocent by some branches of the regime, but as a political prisoner and propaganda example by others.

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So Canada and its citizens know more than most Western countries about the fear and chaos of an unconstrained Iranian regime. The question is how to constrain it.

Until 2013, there were only two options open to a smaller country such as ours: To unilaterally sanction and isolate Iran and its people, or to join those who sought a military attack. The latter fortunately never gained ground: As we have learned over the past 20 years, a military intervention would leave Iran more unstable and dangerous.

Canada, for its part, chose symbolic but largely ineffective punishments. In 2012, prime minister Stephen Harper’s government shut down Iran’s Canadian embassy and expelled its diplomats; Tehran responded in kind. It was an idealistic move that didn’t especially help Canada’s interests: It left us without the main avenue through which the government could pressure Iran and rescue our citizens. There were faltering attempts in Justin Trudeau’s first term to re-normalize diplomatic relations, but Tehran’s sequence of hostage-takings and excesses made that politically impossible.

Starting in 2013, the Americans, in co-operation with the major European countries as well as China, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations Security Council, devised a more results-oriented approach to confronting Iran. The Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action, as the resulting deal is known, took the one-way street of sanctions and offered a second direction: If Iran could prove, through constant full-access inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, that it was sticking to its long-term commitments to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, then bank accounts would be unfrozen, sanctions removed and Iranians granted access to the world banking system – a vital link in a country of small businesses.

Though the JCPOA was only concerned with the limited avenue of possible nuclear-weapons development, the treaty had a more important effect.

Before, ordinary Iranians tended to blame the economic hardships suffered under sanctions on foreign powers: They tended to strengthen the regime’s hand, allowing its leaders to portray themselves as victims. The JCPOA shifted that burden: If Iranians found themselves locked out of their foreign savings accounts, they knew their government was to blame for screwing things up. That sentiment has become dominant in the half-decade of major Iranian protests: It’s now the Ayatollahs and their cronies who are to blame.

More importantly, the deal offers a potent model for how to use multilateral diplomacy to coerce better behaviour from dangerous countries. Something like it should be applied to Saudi Arabia’s extremism – and even, if enough countries could be brought on board, to China.

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When then president Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the JCPOA in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions, its central bargain fell apart predictably. Iran’s leaders began making visible displays of militarism and treaty non-compliance (though intelligence agencies agree there’s no weapons program).

President Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said they want the deal back in place, but this week Iran and the U.S. are in a standoff over which country should start complying first, and whether the deal should extend beyond nuclear threats. The best hope is for other countries to broker a simultaneous re-engagement.

Canada, which declined to participate in the original JCPOA talks, is unlikely to have an active role in its renewal. The middle powers most likely to pull Washington and Tehran together appear to be France, acting as an EU member, or Ireland, using its seat on the Security Council – the same seat Canada tried in vain to win last year.

But at the very least, Ottawa should be out front loudly championing a renewed JCPOA. Few countries stand to gain more from an Iran that’s kept under international constraint.

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