Nader Hashemi is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. His latest book is Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East.
Homa Hoodfar has been freed. Four months after her imprisonment, the Iranian-Canadian anthropologist is on her way home. This is a triumph for Canadian diplomacy. Justin Trudeau's direct intervention with Omani official reportedly clinched the deal. But this is also a victory for political activism. Prof. Hoodfar's arrest led to a massive global civil society mobilization – led by Canadians – demanding her release.
We should ask several questions: Why was she arrested? Why has she been released now? What does this mean for the future of Canada-Iran relations?
Prof. Hoodfar's arrest came as no surprise. It occurred in the context of a major crackdown on civil society that followed the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal. Iranian hardliners tried to thwart the agreement, aware of the crisis of legitimacy facing the Iranian regime and living in constant fear that their control is gradually eroding. This is why Iranian jails are filled with journalists and activists. The popularity of their pro-democracy work undermines the regime's legitimacy. Tehran's public prosecutor stated that Prof. Hoodfar was arrested for the crime of "dabbling in feminism." Feminism implies empowerment, directly connected to the broader theme of human rights and democratization. Prof. Hoodfar's scholarship on Islamic feminism posed an indirect threat to the Iranian regime.
The timing of her release, however, is surprising. Based on similar cases, Iran has always demanded a quid pro quo before releasing dual citizens. Earlier this year, in a controversial deal, the United States and Iran swapped prisoners and money in exchange for the release of the Washington Post correspondent, Jason Rezaian, and three other Iranian-Americans. Immediately after Prof. Hoodfar's arrest in June, Iran's justice minister suggested that Tehran was willing to bargain over Prof. Hoodfar if Ottawa extradited an Iranian-Canadian banker who fled to Toronto in 2011 amid a corruption scandal. Was a secret deal negotiated between Ottawa and Tehran? Time will tell.
Prof. Hoodfar's release could also have a more mundane explanation: She is in fragile health. It would have been a public relations disaster for the Islamic Republic had she died while in custody. Even without a quid pro quo, Iranian hardliners can still claim a partial victory. Tehran's relations with the outside world have been set back. Dual citizens, a key component of Iran's reintegration, now think twice before travelling to Iran.
Furthermore, a clear message has been sent to Iranian civil society activists: if dual citizens can be arrested at the whim of the regime, the same can be done with much greater ease toward Iranian citizens who don't have a foreign government to lobby on their behalf.
What does this mean for Canada-Iran relations? First, Prof. Hoodfar's release removes a major obstacle blocking the re-establishment of relations. Given the mobilization that took place on her behalf, it was inconceivable that Ottawa could restore relations while she was imprisoned. The pathway toward restoring relations is now easier though obstacles remain. At the top of the list is Iran's destabilizing role in the Middle East, most notably in Syria where its fingerprints are all over Assad's war crimes. Pressing Iran on this issue will be a point of contention in negotiating a path to normalization. Iran's abysmal internal human rights record is also a cause of concern to many Canadians. They will justifiably protest if relations are re-established.
By itself, Canada can do very little to change Iranian behaviour in these areas. In concert with other countries, however, Ottawa's voice is strengthened. It can reinforce the European position that closer relations with the West are dependent on Iran's adherence to international human rights norms.
Canada stands to benefit from new business opportunities in Iran. Canadians who need consular and diplomatic representation, as in the tragic case of Alison Azer, are potential beneficiaries.
Homa Hoodfar was not the first Canadian arrested by the Iranian regime. Nor will she be the last. Iran will remain a rogue state for the foreseeable future. But the best strategy for dealing with such a regime is to take the long view.
Diplomatic engagement and economic relations hold the potential of increasing the standard of living of the average Iranian citizen. This will positively impact on Iran's middle class and the youth population that yearns for a democratic Iran that takes its place among the community of nations. As Canada contemplates its next diplomatic move, these points are worth keeping in mind.