In The Media

Canada needs to be ‘on the ground’ in Iran: Time to reopen the embassy

by Colin Robertson

 The Globe and Mail
August 9, 2013

If we are serious about engaging Iran then we need to re-establish diplomatic relations.

September will mark a year since we closed our Embassy in Tehran and declared Iran’s diplomats personae non gratae because we feared for the safety of our diplomats and in protest for Iranian behavior.

Responding to last Sunday’s inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rowhani, Foreign Minister John Baird proclaimed that ‘proof of strategic shift’ required Iran to change its nuclear policies, respect human rights and cease meddling in Syria.

These priorities are right and in the correct order. A nuclear Iran with ballistic missiles threatens stability in the Middle East and beyond, including cities on the eastern seaboard of North America.

Mr. Baird is to be encouraged in getting to know the regional players through his frequent travel. His use of social media, as demonstrated recently at the Munk School’s Global Dialogue with Iranian civil society, is innovative diplomacy.

Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom continues to churn out lively releases on human rights abuses, although their targets would likely pay more attention if they toned down the adjectives. A useful initiative for the Office would be to resurrect the ‘two-track’ research aimed at opening channels for dialogue with Iran conducted by the University of Ottawa’s Peter Jones.

Effective diplomacy is about ‘being there.’ This means having a presence on the ground so that you can look, listen and speak out when necessary.

A diplomatic presence does not imply regime endorsement but rather it is the conduit for official dialogue and discussion. Withdrawal of diplomatic personnel is an extreme step that should only be done if there is a personal threat to our diplomats or when a declaration of war is imminent. In between, there are gradations of presence, based on Winston Churchill’s conviction that ‘jaw-jaw’ is better than ‘war-war’.

The Middle East is complicated, confusing and frustrating but Canada has interests – commercial, political, and social. Through refugee re-settlement, immigration and study, there is a growing regional diaspora living in Canada. As we learned in the 2006 evacuation of Canadians from Lebanon, there is also a growing Canadian expatriate population whose interests oblige our protection.

Through the past half century of global primacy, the U.S. has developed a cadre of smart, experienced practitioners who devote their lives to finding solutions to difficult international problems. Their number includes Ambassador Tom Pickering who, with colleagues William Luers and Jim Walsh, has written ‘For a New Approach to Iran’. It builds on the ongoing, excellent work of the non-partisan Iran Project, which is designed to improve the relationship between the U.S. and Iranian governments and to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Mr. Pickering et al note that while Iran has the basic ability to make a bomb, its nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach. The election of Mr. Rowhani, whose platform included engaging the international community, offers opportunities to influence Tehran.

They argue that ‘coercive diplomacy’ – more sanctions and angry rhetoric – is counterproductive because it hardens resistance to change and reinforces the hardliners.

On military intervention, they recall McGeorge Bundy, President Lyndon Johnson’s national security advisor during the Vietnam War. In a retrospective interview, Mr. Bundy observed that what surprised him most was “the endurance of the enemy.” Too much emphasis had been placed, concluded Bundy, in “the power of coercion.”

Canadian practitioners should draw inspiration from Mr. Pickering and the work of the Iran Project.

Our knowledge of Iran now depends on the reportage of foreign correspondents, the intelligence shared by our friends and allies and what we glean through the Iranian community living in Canada.

This is not adequate if we are to seriously engage Iran and encourage their ‘strategic shift.’ We need our own eyes and ears on the ground. Our policy will oblige patience, persistence and a step-by-step process of proof and verification to build trust.

As a first step towards building confidence, Mr. Rowhani should guarantee the safety of our diplomats. Then it will be time to send a Canadian envoy back to Tehran.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior advisor to McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP.


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