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Canada and Iran Still Aren't Friends — Even as Tehran Buddies Up to the West

The UK reopened its embassy in Tehran on Sunday. But Canada remains decidedly cool to the warming of relations between Western powers and Iran.
Justin Ling
Montreal, Canada
August 24, 2015, 5:25pm
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani welcomes British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond on Monday/Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

As the thawing of relations between Western powers and Iran continues following a nuclear deal, with Britain even reopening its diplomatic outpost in the theocracy this weekend, Canada is sitting firmly outside the pack.

Ottawa's Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has flatly declined invitations to drop its own sanction regime against Tehran, and will not be opening any sort of diplomatic mission inside the country, the Canadian government has confirmed to VICE News.

"There has been no change in Canada's policy," a government spokesperson wrote in an email.

Foreign Affairs minister Rob Nicholson indicated throughout the entire negotiations towards a nuclear deal that Canada would not be joining its partners in renewing ties with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"We will continue to judge Iran by its actions not its words," Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson said in a statement in July, after the deal was reached.

While the Canadian government has avoided explicitly opposing the deal in public, the language emanating from the prime minister's office has leveled pointed criticism at the Iranian regime.

"Iran continues to be a significant threat to international peace and security," a spokesperson for Harper, who is in the midst of a re-election campaign, said in a statement to VICE News last week.

Related: Critics Say Nuclear Deal Will 'Fuel Iran's Terrorism'

Ottawa has remained skeptical of the P5+1 negotiations — which involves its NATO allies, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany; as well as Russia and China — with Nicholson going on the record last April, at the beginning of the last stretch of negotiations, saying: "Iran's track record is not one that encourages trust."

Little has changed since a deal has been formalized. Canada's prohibitive sanctions, which include firm import and export prohibitions, as well as an asset freeze and an arms embargo will remain in place. While in the US, Republicans continue to voice strong opposition to the arrangement endorsed by President Barack Obama, Europe has taken a decidedly warmer tact.

The United Kingdom reopened its embassy in Tehran on Sunday, to coincide with the progression of the nuclear deal. Spain, Sweden and Poland reportedly plan to do the same in the fall.

"Last month's historic nuclear agreement was another milestone, and showed the power of diplomacy, conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect, to solve shared challenges," UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said at a ceremony in Tehran. He called the reopening a "logical next step" to rebuild trust between the two nations.

"Iran is, and will remain, an important country in a strategically important but volatile region. Maintaining dialogue around the world, even under difficult conditions, is critical," he said.

Economic sanctions imposed by the UN, the US and EU will be lifted once Iran's compliance with the particulars of a deal designed to restrict the country's nuclear program are verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Canada hasn't had an official presence in Iran since 2012, when it quickly closed-up shop in Tehran. Its diplomatic staff smashed hard drives before being whisked away in rented cars, destined for the airport. Once those flights were in the sky, Ottawa announced that it would be expelling all of Iran's representatives in Canada.

Related: Americans Are Divided — And Slightly Confused — By the Iran Nuclear Deal

The Iranians left behind a substantial list of assets that the Harper government has kept frozen since then.

An itemized list of those assets was published by the Canadian government. It includes three properties around Ottawa — including a home for the ambassador, situated directly opposite the official residence for the leader of the opposition, in an upscale suburb — as well as roughly $2.2 million dollars in cash. The value of 11 other Iranian bank accounts remains unknown. There's at least another $7 million in those accounts, at least for now.

We know this because a group of individuals successfully sued Iran in a Toronto courtroom for damages caused by terrorist attacks and kidnappings that, the court found, were directly supported by its government.

Those lawsuits would be essentially impossible in virtually every Western nation — usually, international law holds that states must be immune from foreign prosecution or litigation.

But in 2012, the Harper government amended the law to allow for victims of terrorism or their families to sue a state if that government sponsored or aided the attack.

Not long after that change, Canada listed Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, making those court cases all the easier. Court soon saw an influx of cases, many from Americans, trying to sue Iran. If they win those cases, the court can order that Tehran's assets within the country be seized to pay for the damages.

Keeping up the sanctions will allow Canada to continue that process.

Canada has also forged exceptionally strong ties with Israel in recent years. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Harper have regularly made state visits and high-profile meetings, especially as the relationship between Jerusalem and Washington soured.

"I know from many conversations that we've had that you share my view that this is a grave threat to the peace and security of the world and I think it is important that the international community not allow this threat to materialize," Netanyahu told reporters in Ottawa, referring to Iran, after a tete-a-tete with Harper.

Netanyahu has aggressively opposed the Iran deal, calling it an "historic mistake."

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling