Release of jailed Canadian a sign Liberals making progress in relations with Iran
by Marie-Danielle Smith (feat. Colin Robertson)
September 26, 2016
OTTAWA — While Montreal Professor Homa Hoodfar was still imprisoned in Iran, Canadian and Iranian officials held several meetings this summer to negotiate the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, according to a source close to the Foreign Ministry.
Though impasses remain, some experts say Hoodfar’s release on Monday is a sign the Liberal government is making progress on a promise to reopen channels cut off when the previous Conservative government severed ties with Iran in 2012.
In the meetings, officials discussed irritants that could hinder progress. Iranians highlighted the Conservative-era Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which allows victims of terrorism to sue foreign governments labelled as state sponsors of terrorism — an issue that proved a “show-stopper” in negotiations, the source said.
Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion, who said earlier this year he has no intention of taking Iran off that list, met his Iranian counterpart for the first time at UN General Assembly meetings last week.
At the meeting, Dion brought up the cases of the imprisoned Iranian-Canadian professor and the children of Alison Azer, who were taken to Iran by their father more than a year ago.
While Azer’s plight continues, Iran’s state-run news agency IRNA reported Monday that the 65-year-old professor had been freed on humanitarian grounds and flown out of the country.
Margie Mendell, a Concordia professor and close friend, said Hoodfar’s niece, Amanda Ghahremani, met her in Oman, the first stop on her journey home.
“She’s very frail, she looks extremely thin … and very worn,” Mendell said of a report she received. “I suspect that she’s not in good health, but she’s free, she’s free and she’s out of Iran and she will get medical care and her medication.”
Hoodfar suffers from a serious neurological condition and her family had said requests for a check-up by an independent specialist doctor while jailed were ignored.
She was arrested and sent to Tehran’s Evin prison on June 6. The exact reasons for her detention were never made public but her family and colleagues have indicated she ran afoul of Iranian authorities due to her research on homosexuality and women’s sexuality in the context of Muslim countries.
Nader Hashemi, a Canadian professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Denver, said he thinks the timing of her release is not a coincidence.
“I suspect that now the prospects of diplomatic relations are much better today than they were yesterday,” Hashemi said Monday. “This was, I think, a condition that Ottawa placed before Iran.”
A statement from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government had been “actively and constructively engaged at the highest levels” in Hoodfar’s case. The statement confirmed Canada worked with officials from countries with embassies in Tehran, including Oman, Italy and Switzerland.
“The government of Canada is committed to a step-by-step re-engagement with Iran. Engagement is a tougher path but a necessary one to deal more effectively with Middle East security issues and to hold Iran to account on human rights,” said Kristine Racicot, a spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada.
Not all are convinced that this is a step in the right direction.
The Iranians still have “a great deal of explaining to do” with regards to Hoodfar’s imprisonment, said Conservative foreign affairs critic Peter Kent.
“I don’t want to speculate, but my gut tells me it has more to do with them not wanting to have yet another death that they can’t explain on their hands,” he said, a theory Hashemi also mentioned since recent reports indicated Hoodfar’s health was deteriorating.
“We are highly skeptical of any talks that may be going on at the moment,” he said, adding that based on Iran’s behaviour, “we believe that any discussions with the regime are of no value.”
Former diplomat Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said for Canadian consular cases, “it’s better to be there.”
“We’ve got a lot of Canadians who would be considered dual nationals, and if you’re not there, you can’t protect their interests,” he said of putting Canadian officials in Tehran.
“This government has put a priority on people, and that would probably be something that was underlined in the feelers that were probably put out — that before we can move forward, we’ve got to see evidence of better behaviour.”
Still, this is going to be “more of a waltz rather than a quick tango,” Robertson said.
Peter Jones, associate professor at the University of Ottawa, noted that while the Iranian foreign ministry is “keen to re-establish relations” with Canada, its intelligence services and the Revolutionary Guard are much less eager.
A cautious step forward could be to accredit ambassadors in neighbouring countries, Jones said, who’d be able to visit Iran and work on Canadians’ consular cases without having to open an embassy.
Even that would be a boon for Alison Azer, whose four children were kidnapped to Iran by their father more than a year ago.
“One of the problems with Alison’s case is there is no diplomatic representation in Tehran to pursue the grievances and the problems that Canadian citizens have,” Hashemi said. “Up until now she’s had the door frozen shut.”
In a statement to the National Post Monday, Azer said she was happy to learn of Hoodfar’s release. “This demonstrates what diplomacy from the highest levels of government can accomplish,” she said.
“Today’s news gives me cautious optimism I will be reunited with my four beautiful children soon.”