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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)


Keep an open mind where Iran is concerned Add to ...

It was obvious during the Iranian presidential election campaign, and it became even more evident in the weeks thereafter, that the new government would be different than the previous one.

Hassan Rowhani, the new Iranian President, was partially educated in Scotland and speaks fluent English. He therefore knows more about the West than most Iranian leaders. He was the most moderate of the candidates allowed to run under Iran’s restrictive democratic process.

Within days of his election, Mr. Rowhani began sending signals, and then offering modest deeds, to suggest he wanted to explore better relations with the United States and the West.

The U.S. government picked up the signals and responded. It sent a diplomat to Tehran for talks. It seemed to be following the playbook of cautious engagement with Iran outlined in an influential article in Foreign Affairs penned by Thomas Pickering, one of the greatest U.S. diplomats of the recent era, and two other authors.

Typically, the Harper government reacted with rhetoric and a closed mind, having tied itself to Israel’s view of Iran and indeed the whole Middle East.

Mr. Rowhani’s inauguration was greeted by Foreign Minister John Baird not with cautious optimism or even curiosity – President Barack Obama sent a conciliatory, careful message of congratulations – but with the usual bombast and clichés. “Regressive clerical dictatorship.” “The apparatus of tyranny and fear.” “Malevolent.” “Insidious.” “Irresponsible.” “Destructive meddling.” Etc., etc.

This was blunderbuss stuff and rhetorical theatrics, not diplomacy. In recent weeks, the new Iranian government has released some prisoners, offered direct talks with the Americans, talked more moderately about its nuclear program, admitted it needs to show more transparency about that program, sent greetings to Israel for Rosh Hashanah, admitted that sanctions are hurting the Iranian economy – all with the apparent approval of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Of course, the Iranians continue to support the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Expecting Iran to stop that support as a precondition for talks is to put the cart before the horse. Iran, a Shia power, supports Mr. al-Assad in part because it abhors the Sunni jihadis in al-Qaeda who are part of the rebel coalition that Western countries are being urged to aid with weapons. From Iran’s perspective, the Shia-Sunni battles growing throughout the Middle East are at least as consequential as struggles against Western powers (read the U.S.) and Israel.

A clear-headed view of Iran would think of the possibility of the country not as a friend, but as a help against al-Qaeda everywhere and the Taliban in Afghanistan after the Americans depart. Of great unreported importance – Iran is funnelling intelligence information about certain aspects of the Syrian situation to the U.S. and its intelligence-gathering allies, including Canada. How ironic, then, that Canada is getting information from Iran, albeit circuitously, while the Harper government continues to excoriate the Iranian government.

What cannot be denied is that Iran is and will be a major player in the region, whether other governments like it or not, and indeed there is much not to like about the regime. But you don’t have to like the Tehran government to get the country’s geopolitical importance straight.

With a new government in Iran, it would be especially important for governments who run their foreign policy on information rather than blunderbuss rhetoric to probe the new government’s intentions, possible openings for constructive dialogue.

That cannot happen for Canada, since the Harper government shut the Canadian embassy in Iran and threw out Iranian diplomats from Canada. We have to rely on others for information and intelligence, foremost among which, one supposes, is Israel whose leaders have greeted the arrival of a new government in Iran with the same suspicious closed-mindedness as the Harper government.

There was a time when a Canadian government, admittedly a minor player in the region, might have viewed what is happening and what is being said and offered by the new Iranian leadership with at least curiosity, if not an interest in engagement.

As it is, the embassy is shuttered, the ears are waxed and any semblance of geopolitics banished.

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