Dennis Horak was Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2015-18) and head of mission in Iran from 2009-2012.
The plane crash in Iran on Wednesday that killed 176 people, including at least 63 Canadians, was an unimaginable human tragedy. Families and futures were lost in the blink of an eye. The pain will last generations.
For diplomats, dealing with the deaths of Canadians abroad is one of the most difficult challenges. It is also one of the most important. Families are going through the worst time of their lives. It is the role of diplomats to step in and try to facilitate the process of returning their loved ones to Canada, while dealing with the often mind-numbing and incomprehensible bureaucratic realities that inevitably come with it.
Dealing with these events is even more challenging when Canada has no diplomatic presence on the ground or even diplomatic relations with the country where the tragedy occurred. That is the case with Iran.
Canada’s relations with Iran had been fraught from the earliest days of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, given Canada’s role in facilitating the escape of six U.S. diplomats during the hostage crisis. It was an episode that hung over the bilateral relationship for decades – with more than one Iranian official berating me during my time in Iran for helping those “American spies.”
There were a range of additional policy issues and differences that had fractured the relationship in the intervening years. The final break came with the passage of the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act (JVTA) in March, 2012, and the listing of Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism in September, 2012. The legislation allowed for the seizure and sale of Iranian government properties in Canada.
The JVTA made the security situation for the Canadian embassy in Iran untenable; a point that was driven home only months before when the British embassy was violently attacked by an Iranian mob. We were now about to start seizing Iranian properties in Canada. The embassy was closed the day the legislation naming Iran came into effect.
It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was a necessary one. We knew that Canada’s ability to provide consular services would suffer. Italy stepped up as our protecting power in-country and management of consular services was transferred to the Canadian embassy in Ankara. In normal circumstances, it was a manageable, if inadequate and inconvenient, arrangement.
The system, however, was not designed to handle a crisis situation like the one that occurred on Wednesday. Those kinds of situations cannot be managed remotely.
The Islamic Republic is never an easy partner to deal with, even, sadly, in tragic situations. Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne’s call to his Iranian counterpart, Javid Zarif, was a good start. It’s to be hoped it will pave the way for Iranian co-operation in helping Canada try and ease the suffering of families by letting our officials go to Iran to do what they need to do. That’s the least that can be expected and they deserve the full co-operation of Iranian authorities on the ground. But given the state of our relations (or, more to the point, lack thereof) that cannot be assumed. I do hope, though, that Iran does not use its refusal to recognize dual nationality to argue that Canada has no direct interest in this incident. Sadly, that cannot be ruled out.
There are reports that the Iranian Civil Aviation Authorities have invited Canada’s Transportation Safety Board to join the international team being assembled to investigate the crash and according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, consular officials are heading to Iran. In light of Canadian intelligence information that the plane seems to have been shot down by the Iranian military, we can’t be certain Iran will allow Canadian access. The fact that Iran was on the other end of similar event in 1988, when an Iranian commercial aircraft was brought down over the Persian Gulf by an American naval vessel, should enhance willingness to co-operate, but how open they actually will be remains to be seen.
It would be a welcome outcome if this incident provided new impetus to the effort to resume diplomatic ties and a return to Tehran in due course, taking into account the broader geopolitical context. There is no substitute for being on the ground. Canada has been blind to what has been happening in Iran – especially important these past several days – and we have our hands tied in dealing with this tragedy.
But that will require dealing with the JVTA and that will be tough politically. The federal government will be accused of going soft on Iran and denying that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism. Removing the JVTA says nothing of the sort. The JVTA was a mistake that is hurting Canadian interests and, more importantly, undercutting the government’s duty to serve Canadians. It should go.