Iran proposed resuming some diplomatic ties with Canada but was put off by Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne, who insisted that relations focus on fallout from the downing of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752.
The overture to renew diplomatic ties was made by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a face-to-face meeting in Oman on Jan. 17, a federal government source confirmed. He did not propose immediately reopening embassies that had been closed in 2012, but rather to take a smaller step by opening “interests sections” in embassies of third countries.
Mr. Champagne did not reject the idea, but did not entertain discussion of it either, as the federal government insists that matters regarding Flight 752 are the priority now.
At the time of the Oman meeting, only nine days after Iranian forces mistakenly shot down Flight 752, killing 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents, the Canadian government was still pressing Iran over consular matters, such as getting the repatriation of victims remains back to Canada.
Mr. Zarif did not raise the idea of establishing interests sections again when he met Mr. Champagne on the sidelines of a security conference in Germany on Feb. 14 – a meeting that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stopped in on – according to the source. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the source because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the sensitive matter.
Canada continues today to insist that issues surrounding Flight 752 take precedence, including compensation for victims and a complete investigation, notably that the flight recorders in Iran’s possession be analyzed in a foreign lab.
“When it comes to relations with Iran, our focus remains squarely on ensuring closure, transparency, accountability and justice for the victims of the Flight PS752 tragedy,” said Mr. Champagne’s spokesman, Adam Austen.
Stephen Harper’s Conservative government shuttered the Canadian embassy in Tehran in 2012, saying Iran sponsored terrorism and Canadian diplomats were unsafe there. Iran’s embassy in Ottawa was subsequently closed.
Recent photos of Mr. Trudeau shaking hands with Mr. Zarif at the Feb. 14 meeting in Munich sparked a volley of criticism, demonstrating that the idea of resuming diplomatic ties with Iran – something that the Liberals said they would do when elected in 2015 – would be controversial, particularly so soon after Flight 752 was shot down.
Resuming ties eventually is still government policy – but Canadian officials are reluctant to discuss Iran’s overtures now.
However, talks centred on the idea of opening interests sections had reached an advanced stage in 2017.
That idea would see Canada open an office located in a third country’s embassy – Canadian officials scouted the British embassy in Tehran as a potential location – and Iran would open an office at another country’s embassy in Ottawa.
Two Canadian delegations went to Iran in 2017, included one headed by Mark Glauser, then the director-general of the Middle East bureau at Global Affairs Canada; two Iranian delegations visited Canada. Officials drew up tentative agreements on the number of diplomats and staff that would be allowed.
The talks were abandoned in early 2018 after Iranian-Canadian environmentalist Kavous Seyed-Emami was arrested in Iran and accused of spying, and later died in prison, and his wife, Maryam Mombeini, was put under house arrest. Ms. Mombeini was released last October, in theory removing an obstacle to talks, but there was no movement before Flight 752 was shot down on Jan. 8.
The tragedy led to high-level talks, in part to smooth consular arrangements, but disagreement over the flight recorders has emerged.
Mr. Champagne has repeatedly called for Iran to send the flight recorders – known as black boxes – to a foreign laboratory, since the country does not have the capacity to analyze them. But Iran is reluctant, and has asked Canada and other countries to send experts to analyze them in Tehran, according to the federal government source.
Mike Poole, the chief executive officer of Plane Sciences Inc., and former chief of the Transportation Safety Board’s flight recorder and performance division, said it is not impossible to send experts abroad, but it is impractical.
“It’s not just one person and portable kit,” he said. “You have a bunch of tools and you’re going to open the box and decide which ones you want to use.”
He said the recorders probably don’t contain particularly useful information – since they were downed by missiles, they will simply show the plane’s flight suddenly stopping, he said. But he added that being thorough is still the proper thing to do.
Mr. Austen noted that Iranian officials can supervise the process. “We’re not asking them to surrender the black boxes to Canada or any other country. We’re asking them to bring them there to be analyzed under their supervision.”
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