Iranian-Canadian Liberal MP expresses concern about Iranian protests but defers on re-establishing diplomatic ties
by Jolson Lim (feat. Colin Robertson)
The Hill Times
January 11, 2018
Iranian-Canadian rookie Liberal MP Ali Ehassi says the heavy-handed response to massive street protests against the government in Iran is “heart-wrenching” to watch, though remained tight-lipped on whether he continues to support efforts by the Trudeau government to reopen diplomatic ties with the country.
In an interview, Mr. Ehsassi (Willowdale, Ont.) told The Hill Times he’s closely following the situation in Iran, and believes that the interests and narratives propagated by the Iranian regime are different from those of the Iranian people.
“It’s important going forward, that all governments are in solidarity with the Iranians, that we judge the Iranian government not by their words but by their actions,” he said, noting that since the protests began, he has spoken to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.) and members of the Iranian-Canadian community about the ongoing unrest.
Asked whether he supports his party’s view that Canada should re-establish formal diplomatic ties with Iran, Mr. Ehsassi said only that it’s “important” to reach out to members of the Iranian community in Canada.
“I think it’s important that Global Affairs Canada consults closely our allies around the world. I think it’s important to not jump to any conclusions prematurely,” he said, calling the protests against the Iranian government as “one of those moments where we may have to take stock of things.”
Mr. Ehsassi lived in Iran for five years as a child and comes from a family of Iranian diplomats and statesmen associated with Pahlavi dynasty. Following the 1979 Iranian revolution that toppled the Pahlavi dynasty and brought to power a theocratic republic, his parents left the country and settled in Canada.
The first-term MP attended a rally in Toronto on Jan. 7 expressing solidarity with the protesters and their demands that also brought out Liberal MP Michael Levitt (York Centre, Ont.) and Conservative MP Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.). The protests, which began late last year, have seen thousands of Iranians take to the street to express anger with deteriorating economic conditions and government restrictions against public expression.
The Iranian government has responded by detaining demonstrators, censoring media coverage, and limiting access to social media channels that could potentially be used to help organize rallies, drawing stern criticism from the West. At least 21 people are believed to have died in the protests, while about 3,700 demonstrators have been detained, according to media reports.
Amid the protests, fellow Iranian-Canadian Liberal MP Mr. Jowhari (Richmond Hill, Ont.) drew criticism for posting a photo last month on Twitter of a statement from Ms. Freeland expressing hope that the protesters would be able to freely air their grievances with “support of its elected government.”
Conservative MP and party foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.) called Mr. Jowhari’s actions “inappropriate,” and said the tweet was “a preposterous presentation.”
When reached, the office of Ms. Jowhari said he was unavailable for an interview and did not respond to requests for an email statement. The rookie MP represents a suburban Toronto riding that has the highest percentage of Iranians-Canadians.
It’s not the first time Mr. Jowhari has weathered allegations of supporting the interests of the Iranian regime.
He attracted criticism for meeting last year with an Iranian parliamentary delegation at his constituency office without the involvement of Global Affairs Canada. The meeting was purportedly about forming a Canada-Iran parliamentary friendship group, according to reporting by a Richmond Hill newspaper.
He was also slammed for allegedly stacking a meeting with then-Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion and members of the Iranian-Canadian community with delegates supportive of Canada restoring diplomatic ties with the country, rather than those critical of the existing regime.
“I really worry when it appears that there’s positions taken with respect to foreign countries that aren’t within our national interest, that are being advanced by our MP, that’s inappropriate and the prime minister should call him on the carpet, I think, to see where his loyalty lies,” Mr. O’Toole told The Hill Times.
“There’s now been enough things that I’ve heard over the last year or so, mainly from Iranian-Canadian community that causes a lot of MPs’ concern.”
Iranian Canadian Congress (ICC) president Bijan Ahmadi defended Mr. Jowhari, arguing the tweet was taken “out of context.”
He told The Hill Times that recent media coverage has unfairly portrayed Iranian-Canadians as a “monolithic community,” and claimed there haven’t been enough pro-diplomacy viewpoints in the public debate.
Ever since Mr. Jowhari began pushing for re-establishing diplomatic ties after he was elected in 2015, he started “getting these attacks from certain political groups, especially groups whose sole agenda is to isolate the Iranian government,” according to Mr. Ahmadi.
Mr. Ehsassi said he was out of the country during the holidays when Mr. Jowhari’s posted his tweet and couldn’t “shed light on what exactly he meant by his statement,” adding that he hasn’t spoken to him.
Asked about whether he and Mr. Jowhari had differences in opinion, Mr. Ehsassi said “I’m truly not aware of any individual who has identical views with me on any given issue. We all have different perspectives on issues.”
He wouldn’t say whether he believed criticisms hurled at Mr. Jowhari are unfair.
“What I can say, as an MP, I think each and every single one of us is supposed to try the best to their ability to talk to our constituents. I never try to pass my own judgement onto others. Our job is to advocate on behalf of our constituents,” he said.
Canadian government denies Iranian media report hinting at new meetings
Last month, Iranian media quoted a senior government official saying that the country would be sending a delegation “at the directorate general level” to Canada in the new year.
However, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Brittany Venhola-Fletcher told The Hill Times there are no plans for any future meetings with Canadian and Iranian officials in Canada.
“There are ongoing discussions, but no timeline has been established and no meetings have been confirmed. Discussions have taken place among officials and at the ministerial level. Minister Freeland has spoken with Foreign Minister Zarif, including at the UN General Assembly in New York,” she explained.
She also stated that there had been no meetings to discuss re-establishing diplomatic ties ever held in Canada.
In October and May, Canadian officials travelled to Tehran to hold talks with the Iranian government. However, the Canadian government cautioned that many issues needed to be addressed before Canada could open an mission in the Persian country.
Five rounds of talks have already been held between the two countries at the expert level, Mr. Keshavarzzadeh, the general director of American affairs in the country’s foreign ministry, told Mehr news agency on Dec. 16, though Global Affairs Canada has not confirmed that.
When asked about the effect of the protests on negotiations, Ms. Venhola-Fletche referred to Mr. Freeland’s previous statement calling direct engagement with the Iranian regime as the “most effective tool to hold Iran to account,” though expressing concern about the government’s crackdown of freedom of expression and support of known terrorist organizations.
Opponents of diplomatic engagement have decried the Iranian regime for its litany of human rights abuses, suggesting the recent unrest serving as an example of why Canada should back out of re-engagement. Supporters have argued that the Iranian-Canadians are cut off from much-needed consular services and that it’s more productive to engage with the regime diplomatically than not.
Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat, told The Hill Times that protests against the Iranian government wouldn’t threaten to derail the dialogue on re-establishing diplomatic ties because the government sees human rights and diplomatic re-engagement as “two separate tracks.”
“It’s consistent with the Trudeau approach to engagement and commitment to multilateralism,” he said, noting that Canada, despite applying sanctions on Russia, still has diplomatic relations with the Kremlin.
Mr. O’Toole called on Canada to reassess any decision towards re-establishing diplomatic ties, saying it would be used by the Iranian regime in “propaganda efforts” to further its interests in the Middle East.
However, Mr. Ahmadi said if there is any reassessment by Canadian officials, it would only “re-confirm that we need to be in Iran.”