Why Canada should reopen its embassy in Tehran

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
April 15, 2015

In diplomacy, as in life, perfection can be the enemy of the good. The Lausanne framework negotiated between Iran and six world powers – the U.S., Russia, China, U.K., France and Germany – to contain Iran’s nuclear arms is not perfect. But if the framework becomes a formal agreement by June 30, it would be good.

This continuing process deserves Canadian support and Canada could do more to verify Iranian compliance as well as actively promote non-proliferation.

Hurdles remain, including bridging the interpretive divergences between the various parties over the framework.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warns that leaving Iranian nuclear capacity intact “paves Iran’s path to the bomb.” Mr. Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon pose pertinent questions:

How can you trust “the preeminent terrorist state of our time”?

Why leave Iran’s long-range ballistic missile program untouched?

How do you “snapback” sanctions if Iran cheats?

Any deal that lifts sanctions will require approval from the U.S. Congress. Capitol Hill will want answers to the kinds of questions posed by the experts from the Iran Project, a group of former diplomats and scholars with the goal of improving relations between the U.S. and Iran. These issues include:

Sequencing for lifting sanctions

Means for limiting Iran’s enriched uranium

Israeli opposition aside, the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs worry that an Iran-U.S. breakthrough will radically change regional geopolitics.

Suspicions run deep over Iran’s nuclear and political ambitions. A combination of declining oil revenues and sanctions persuaded Iran to come to the bargaining table and there are already divisions in Iran’s leadership over the framework.

Since 1979, Iran has provoked the international community at many levels: its domestic abuse of human rights; its expansionism of the Shia revolution regionally; its support of terrorist groups within the Islamic world and beyond; and its nuclear program.

In 2003, Western negotiators reached agreement with then-Iranian negotiator and now President Hassan Rouhani. That deal unravelled in hostility and mistrust and the UN reimposed sanctions over Iranian cheating.

But re-engagement and diplomacy make more sense than military threats. Retired U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering, a leader of the Iran Project, observes that “deployment of military force can bring the immediate illusion of ‘success’ but always results in unforeseen consequences and collateral damage.”

With its regional alliances, Iran portrays itself as a counterpole to U.S. influence. Inevitably, roads to Middle East peace will pass through Tehran. In dealing with adversaries, Ambassador Pickering argues, greater knowledge and close contact is the surer way to conflict resolution.

It has been 70 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While the nuclear club has expanded, the lid on using nuclear arms has endured. But conditions change as the nuclear powers reinvest in the quality of their arsenals and second-strike capacities.

Arms-control negotiations still matter. The U.S. and Russia hold the most nuclear arms and their arms-reduction efforts have been sustained, comprehensive and mostly successful although recent events have chilled progress. There are various multinational tables, with U.S. President Barack Obama revitalizing the process at the leaders’ level. China and the U.S. would like to revive moribund negotiations with North Korea.

Canada has both history and a stake in non-proliferation. Canadian scientists, working at Chalk River, Ont., contributed to the development of the atomic bomb. Meeting in July, 1957, in Pugwash, N.S., Canadian scientists led the movement to eschew nuclear arms. Canada’s decision to only use nuclear power for peaceful purposes set the example that most nations have followed. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we contributed to the removal and destruction of their spent nuclear fuel.

Mines in northern Saskatchewan, on lands shared with First Nations, provide about a third of the world’s uranium. Canada could radically change the nuclear game by declaring permanent ownership of our uranium and limit sales for use in multinational enrichment facilities that take back or safely dispose of spent fuel but do not separate plutonium. We would collaborate with the International Atomic Energy Agency and encourage Australia, the world’s other major uranium producer, to join us as permanent stewards.

Our game-changing initiative would literally put the nuclear genie – the spent fuel – back into the mines from which it came. The business opportunity for innovation, in which First Nations would be major stakeholders, is obvious.

If, as Foreign Minister Rob Nicholson said in reacting to the framework negotiated in Lausanne, we will “continue to judge Iran by its actions not its words,” we should reopen our embassy in Tehran. In September, 2012, then-Foreign Minister John Baird suspended diplomatic relations and closed the Canadian embassy, citing Iranian abuse of human rights and its support for terrorism. Restoring diplomatic relations does not mean regime endorsement.

Diplomacy is about being there. Having eyes and ears on the ground will inform our perspective, help our allies, advance our interests and keep the bomb at bay.


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