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General view of the debris of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 that crashed after take-off from Iran's Imam Khomeini airport, on the outskirts of Tehran, Iran on Jan. 8, 2020.

SOCIAL MEDIA/Reuters

Donn Lovett is president of Donn Lovett Agency, a media and public relations consulting firm

The downing of the Ukrainian airliner made starkly clear that Canada and Iran have an inadequate diplomatic relationship. This was very apparent by the hardships for all families of the victims of Flight 752, delaying the transfer of information and the repatriation of the remains of the victims.

Now we are faced with yet another tragedy. Canadians are again stranded in Iran due to the new coronavirus, with no consular direction, no one to meet with, and no one to get them to safety.

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I witnessed this personally, meeting Canadians with no way to communicate with Canadian diplomats. I was in Tehran for a week in February, and if not for the resolve of the pilot on SalamAir, an Omani airline, who insisted on taking off despite instructions to remain on the ground, I would still be stranded in Iran due to concerns about the spread of the virus.

It’s time to extend an olive branch to Iran: the diplomatic relationship known as an Interests Section.

An Interests Section serves as an embassy in the absence of normal or official diplomatic relations between countries, usually to represent nations that lack full diplomatic recognition. Even with decades of tensions between Iran and the United States, there currently exists an Interests Section between these two countries. The Interests Section of Iran in the United States is at the Pakistani embassy in Washington, while the United States has its Interests Section at the Swiss embassy in Tehran.

When relations are exceptionally tense, such as during a war, the Interests Section is staffed by diplomats from the protecting power. For example, when Iraq and the U.S. broke diplomatic relations due to the Persian Gulf War, Poland became the protecting power for the United States. The U.S. Interests Section of the Polish embassy in Iraq was headed by a Polish diplomat. From 1977 to 2015, the United States Interests Section in Havana was staffed by Americans, even though it was formally a section of the Swiss embassy to Cuba.

The Interests Section provides all essential consular services to Iranian citizens and issues visas to foreigners. Since the severing of diplomatic ties by Canada in 2012, there is no such mechanism in Canada to handle the consular affairs of Iranian citizens residing in Canada.

Canada is a country of immigrants. There are many Iranians living in Canada. The consular issue is an integral part of daily life. Moreover, many Iranian students are in universities across Canada. They need to go home and come back and constantly need confirmation of their documents. Presently, Iranians wishing to obtain a visa to Canada, must travel to Turkey to complete their application process at the Canadian embassy in Turkey.

Over the past four years, Canada was involved in several consular and humanitarian cases with Iran. All of these were resolved. However, the solutions were very difficult because of no formal, diplomatic channel. The existence of a formal, diplomatic channel of communication creates a high probability of preventing these situations from happening in the future.

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Canada’s concerns with Iran over human-rights violations will not improve without diplomatic relations. The negative impact of the closing of the embassies is directed at ordinary, hard-working Iranian Canadians who are currently living in Canada, or Iranians who are hoping to obtain a visa to Canada.

Finally, seeking de-escalation and peace requires a direct channel of dialogue and allows Canada to have a better voice in dealing with regional and international challenges. It’s time for Canada to consider this matter seriously and permit operation of an Interests Section for Iran in Ottawa. Canada and Iran both stand to benefit diplomatically and economically from restarting relations.

Since the First World War, Canada has played an important role in world events, first within the British Empire and then as a power itself, under the guidance of two former prime ministers. The Right Honourable Lester Pearson won the Nobel Prize in 1957 for his handling of the Suez Crisis. The Right Honourable Jean Chrétien won international acclaim for standing against the unilateral attack on Iraq by the United States in March 2003.

Canada should exercise its middle-power status and demonstrate to the world that we deserve a seat at the Security Council of the United Nations. Opening consular services via an Interests Section is a good place to start.

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