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Trudeau made personal appeals to allies to help free Montrealer from Iran prison

by Tonda Maccharles (feat. Thomas Juneau)

The Star
September 26, 2016

OTTAWA-- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally appealed to Canadian allies Italy and Switzerland, and allies of Iran, namely Oman, to secure the release of Homa Hoodfar from a Tehran prison where she was jailed since June, the Star has learned.

The effort to plead Hoodfar’s consular case had stalled through much of the summer, but gained urgency in the past several weeks as her family said her health was fragile and declining.

Trudeau met with key diplomats on the sidelines of international summits and, in what would become a breakthrough on Sept. 9, telephoned Oman’s foreign minister to request the aid of the Sultan of Oman in lobbying Iran, according to a senior Canadian official.

It was seen as “a bit of a long shot,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity,

“Everything started to move after that. Why that is, your guess is as good as mine. But there’s no doubt we were hitting a brick wall until they had that discussion.”

The appeals from the top culminated Monday with the surprise release of Hoodfar, 65, a retired Montreal sociology and anthropology professor, who was photographed stepping off a Royal Air Force of Oman plane to freedom.

Hoodfar’s release — the second in two weeks of a Canadian citizen stranded in dire circumstances — follows Kevin Garratt’s return to Canada after spending two years in a Chinese jail. Both were believed jailed on trumped up charges. In Garratt’s case, Ottawa had even dispatched CSIS director Michel Coulombe to Beijing “to deliver a message” — in the words of another senior official — Garratt hadn’t been asked to spy for the agency.

The Hoodfar and Garratt cases could represent, for two Canadian families, the fruits of the Liberal government’s strategy of deliberate re-engagement.

Or Hoodfar’s release could be a result of an internal power shift in the Iranian regime, split between hardliners and moderates, and unrelated to Canada’s efforts, according to a University of Ottawa professor Thomas Juneau. The former DND analyst specializing in Iran pointed out Iran is “absolutely opaque on issues like this.”

“We don’t know why she was taken. We don’t know if she was taken as a bargaining tool by the Iranians to create leverage with the Canadians to obtain something in exchange” or if she was jailed “solely as a result of internal factional disputes inside Iran — hardliners wanting to trip up moderates to damage their efforts at re-engaging with the international community.”

Juneau said if that is the case, Hoodfar’s release may be a function of internal politics and “pretty independent of what Canada is or is not doing.”

Nevertheless, Hoodfar’s case is the latest to signal a willingness on Trudeau’s part to go out on a limb and personally engage in politically delicate cases.

In doing so, Trudeau is said to have turned aside early advice from officials during transition briefings when he took power not to get personally involved in consular cases.

At that time, Egyptian-born Canadian citizen Mohamed Fahmy, a jailed journalist in Cairo, was in the headlines, said the official who has knowledge of the file.

“But he said, ‘Look, I believe really strongly in this, that I’m going to be more involved in these cases than my predecessors have been as a matter of practice, because I was a Canadian who travelled all over the world and I know how important it is to have your government behind you when you find yourself in a difficult situation,’ ” said the Canadian official.

“What the prime minister said to foreign minister of Oman which was almost a carbon copy of what he said to Chinese officials about Kevin Garratt was it’s really hard — we want to have a change in the tone in the relationship here — but it’s really difficult to have a fresh approach to the relationship when (Iran) has got a Canadian citizen in jail for effectively being a feminist,” said the official, adding “there was no specific commitment to do anything return.”

Key in conveying the message to Iranian officials was the effort by Italy and Switzerland, too, said the official.

Over the summer, Canada’s global affairs department “mapped” relationships in Iran and the region. Canada had closed its embassy and pulled its ambassador to Tehran in 2012. Ottawa had “zero contact” with Tehran and had to turn to its friends for help in the region.

At the G20 summit in August in China, Trudeau spoke to Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose government maintains diplomatic ties to Iran. Renzi personally directed Italy’s diplomats to make representations in Tehran on Hoodfar’s behalf.

“The Italians were amazing,” said the official. “They did treat her as they would treat an Italian in the same situation” and worked channels with their contacts, though no Italian official was able to visit Hoodfar.

During the Sept. 9 phone call, Trudeau reached a willing listener. Oman’s foreign minister told Trudeau his country’s leader, the Sultan of Oman, might be willing to press Canada’s case with Tehran and promised to follow up with the Canadians at the United Nations General Assembly.

“We thought what does that actually mean and will anything actually transpire,” said the Canadian official who has knowledge of the file.

The Canadians speculated the Iranians may have been surprised by the direct intervention of the prime minister since there had been little movement in the relationship after diplomatic ties were cut, apart from Canada’s agreement with other countries to lower sanctions following January’s agreement to see Iran restrict its nuclear activities.

There followed a flurry of meetings in New York between Canada’s global affairs minister Stéphane Dion and foreign ministers of Iran, Oman, Italy and Switzerland, and finally a long meeting on the sidelines between Trudeau and Oman’s foreign minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah before Trudeau’s speech Sept. 20 to the General Assembly. “And that’s when he said, ‘Look, I think we can really help you on this,’ ” the official said.

On a broader policy level, Trudeau’s re-engagement strategy could bear fruit, though experts disagree on who stands to gain more.

Canada has agreed to requests by the leadership in Beijing to explore free trade talks and an extradition treaty with China. It agreed to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank — a move the official said was not a bargaining chip but “a good thing for Canada that we were going to do anyway, we were looking for the right timing to do that.”

In the case of Iran, Juneau said the hard truth is that Canada’s decision to list Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism under the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act was a “booby-trap” left by the Conservatives. The law allows terror victims to sue for compensation. It isn’t a legal obstacle to renewing relations, he said, but unless Canada agrees to drop the listing — stating it doesn’t believe Iran’s involvement in state-sponsored terrorism — “from Iran’s perspective” there would be little interest in deeper engagement.

Carleton University professor Stephanie Carvin said the re-engagement with China and Iran leaves little doubt Trudeau has moved to “joyfully embrace multilateralism” in a way that “purposefully changes the tone” and differentiates the Liberals from the Harper Conservatives. But she suspects there is a division in Trudeau’s cabinet as to how far Canada should go in the case of China, given concerns about economic espionage, and foreign influence.


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