Canada, Iran, and the World: An Interview with Professor Thomas Juneau

The Canadian Foreign Policy Journal recently announced the winners of its annual best paper prize. In this interview, we sat down with one of this year’s two winners, Professor Thomas Juneau of the University of Ottawa. His article, “A story of failed re-engagement: Canada and Iran, 2015–2018”, explores the history of Canada’s relations with Iran and seeks to explain why the Liberal government was unable to follow on its promise to build an embassy in Tehran. We also asked Juneau about recent events in Iran, including the aftermath of the Soleimani strike and the shootdown of a Ukrainian passenger jet. 

Your article was published with unfortunate timing. In January, the Trump administration killed Qasem Soleimani in an airstrike. In the fog of war that emerged, very sadly a passenger jet was shot down over Tehran, with 63 Canadians on board. In the midst of that event, to what extent did it matter that Canada did not have an embassy in Tehran?

It clearly mattered. That is a very important point because over the last 7.5 years, people like me—who were critical of the decision to shut down the embassy in Tehran in 2012 and to kick out Iranian diplomats from Ottawa—we were saying it was costly not to have an embassy in Tehran. 

Our critics would say “show me these costs” and that was not an easy thing for us to do because Canada-Iran relations are not, were not, and will not be in the future very important to either country. It is a marginal relationship. So, the actual concrete cost to Canada not having an embassy was not especially large. 

But still, there were some costs: not having information on the ground from one of the most important countries in the Middle East, not being there to promote other Canadian interests such as human rights, trade—even though that is pretty limited—and not being able to manage specific consular cases. There is a large population of dual citizens, several tens of thousands, and consular services for them were impacted by the absence of embassies. That being said, it was on a pretty small scale because it is not a major relationship. 

Now, of course, nobody could have predicted what happened in January, but you concretely saw that our lack of an embassy hampered the Canadian government’s ability to deal with the fallout of the plane being shot down. Of course, that was being mitigated by the fact that we sent a rapid reaction team fairly quickly, but still, there was a cost in effectiveness there. 

And now that those costs have been made concrete, has there been any re-evaluation in Ottawa on whether we should establish an embassy?

We need to keep in mind that the Canadian government is not very transparent on these things. We do not know what the internal thinking looks like, because it has not been exposed to the public. My understanding based on the conversations I have had over the past month or so is that, for now, for the short term, the focus is on managing the crisis.

That means initially repatriating bodies, dealing with families, dealing with all the logistical issues and fairly technical issues that go with that, and dealing with the investigation that Canada is pushing Tehran to allow. That is the focus now, so there is no immediate effort, as far as I know, to try to relaunch efforts to try to re-establish diplomatic relations. 

Could such an effort be launched in the mid-term, somewhere in the spring or summer of 2020 or beyond? Yes, I think it could and I think it should. That being said, it is hard. Previous efforts failed and some of the reasons, though not all of the reasons why these efforts failed—which I detail in the article—are still there. 

One argument you made in the article is that our relationship with the United States would be enhanced if we had an embassy in Tehran. In a sense, this is counter-intuitive because in the United States there is very strong anti-Iran rhetoric and, obviously, anti-Iranian action. Why would they want us to re-establish relations with a regime they so clearly regard as an adversary?

When talking about what the Americans want it is always important to remember that the United States is not monolithic. There are multiple centres of power in the government as a whole, not only in this administration, which is very factionalised, but previous ones too. That’s an important point to keep in mind, as it matters for what is going on now. 

When the Harper government closed the embassy in 2012, the Obama administration didn’t really care because Canada-Iran relations were not a priority for them. That being said, they did not agree with the decision and that is something that clearly came out of my research interviewing a lot of the people who were involved in 2012. 

In particular, the Americans did not like the decision because it was first not the direction they were trying to go in, because they favoured negotiation in light of the nuclear deal. Secondly, various government agencies in the United States benefitted from Canada’s presence in Iran, especially intelligence agencies and those at the State Department. 

When Canadian diplomats returned from their postings in Iran, they would report back to both Ottawa and then go to Washington, where they would debrief their American colleagues. Since the Americans do not have that presence on the ground, they really appreciated this. They would use Canadian reports—that is something I was clearly told in my interviews for the article—and felt a degree of loss when Canada was no longer able to give these reports. 

Of course, the Americans have other allies in Tehran. The Europeans, in particular, can do something similar but the Americans especially valued our reports given our institutional and political closeness with the United States.  

When Canada started re-launching efforts to open an embassy in 2016-17, the Trudeau government asked the Trump administration if they would take issue with the action. To be clear, this was not a request for a green light but merely a signal check on what American perceptions were. 

At the bureaucratic level, the response was positive. At the political level, the response was more of a shrug than anything else. Clearly, however, the Trump administration did not oppose the decision. And I’ve actually interviewed people on this: Trudeau asked Trump for his opinion and there was no red light in response. 

One of the obstacles to opening an embassy you identify in the article is the Justice for Victims Terrorism Act (JVTA). What is that act, why did it come about, and why has it proved so hard for Liberals to overcome when they had a majority in Parliament? 

The JVTA was a law that the Conservatives adopted in early 2012. It allowed the government to “list” states as sponsors of terrorism, with Syria and Iran identified first. 

The result of the act is that individuals, including non-Canadians, can sue Iran in Canadian courts for acts of terrorism linked to Iran. And that link can be fairly creative. For example, some of the cases in Canadian courts involved attacks by Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran but is not a direct Iranian actor. And the fact that it is not only Canadians that can sue Iran in Canadian courts is very important because, in a dozen or so cases, a significant number were initiated by Americans. The act is also retroactive. It can go back to terrorist actions in the 1980s. 

The act allows Canadian courts to seize Iranian government assets. Further, in addition to the JVTA, the Conservatives modified the State Immunity Act to allow court seizures of foreign assets, an action that was previously prohibited. So, if you are Iran, you are not interested in re-establishing diplomatic relations since Canadian courts can seize your assets. At the same time, on the Canadian side, there is a risk because if Canadian courts can do this to Iranian assets here in Ottawa, then Canadian diplomats become exposed in Tehran. 

So, when the Conservatives adopted the JVTA in 2012 and listed Iran, it became pretty clear that because of that, the Canadian embassy had to be closed. It was not realistic to keep it open and this was the point. The Conservatives wanted to paint the situation into a corner to make closure unavoidable. 

When Canada and Iran started negotiating in 2016-17 again on the possibility of opening embassies, the JVTA was an obstacle. The Iranians were unwilling to accept the JVTA. One of the questions that were raised was: Can Canada simply de-list Iran? From a procedural perspective, that is very easy, requiring only an action of cabinet—an ‘order of council’—to simply delist Tehran. No new legislation had to be passed. The problem is that politically, it is extremely challenging. It amounts to saying “no, Iran does not support terrorism”. 

This is (a) very politically unappealing and (b) inaccurate, in the sense that Iran does actually support terrorism because it supports groups like Hamas and Hezbollah and others that are not only terrorist groups period, but are listed as terrorists under the Canadian criminal code. 

It is important to recognize that that was the point of the JVTA. I interviewed folks on the political and bureaucratic side on this. The JVTA was supposed to tie the hands of future governments, to make it, at the least, very difficult if not impossible for them to re-establish diplomatic relations. So, from the Conservatives’ perspective, this was a success.  

What is the role of the Israel lobby in Canada? To what extent is there such a lobby and, if there is one, how responsible is it for what has seemed to be the hardening of Canadian policy towards Iran?

I interviewed over 25 people for this article, in addition to having multiple conversations over the years about Canada’s foreign policy in the Middle East. I actually saw no evidence that the Israel lobby—whatever that actually is—had a major influence. Yes, there are a number of groups that lobby, that are activists for Canada to have a more pro-Israel foreign policy. That’s true. But these groups are far less powerful and far less vocal than in the US, for example.

It is true that a small number of pro-Israeli groups lobbied the Conservatives to have a more anti-Iran policy, but this is a correlation, not causation. They had a bit of influence but were not decisive in changing Canadian policy. 

The key point, which I touch on in the article, is that the Harper government operationalized a convergence of views and was ready to work with these groups. But these groups did not really push the government in that direction. 

Another domestic constituency that you do identify is the Iranian diaspora in Canada, which is electorally important. How does the Iranian community in Canada view the regime in Iran? Are they pushing for more hardline policies, are they more in favour of engagement, or is it really just a multitude of views within one community? 

Like any large diaspora community, the Iranian diaspora community in Canada is very fragmented, so it is absolutely impossible to say that the Iranian community supports this or opposes that. There are a multitude of views. I am not aware of anybody who has done extensive, accurate polling to really be able to come up with precise numbers. 

There are some members of the diaspora who are pro-regime, probably not that many but some. There are some members that are at the other end—a larger number—who are very much anti-regime. They don’t just dislike the regime but they are actively, intensely opposed to the regime. That is a fairly big chunk, but that chunk is fairly divided: there are monarchists, there are MEK [a left-wing opposition group], and there are others who are not affiliated with any group or faction but who really hate the regime. 

In the middle, you have a lot of people. We don’t have accurate data to know if they are a majority, but there are enough people who don’t like the regime yet are more or less sympathetic to the idea of re-establishing diplomatic relations. This is not for political reasons or to legitimize the regime, but for very pragmatic, personal reasons such as sending money back home to grandma. This is made more difficult by sanctions, by the absence of an embassy, by getting visas to go back home, and by many other complicated consular issues. 

A lot of these categories overlap. Some are anti-regime but would still like an embassy for these pragmatic reasons. So, these are not neat categories, but this is not unique to the Iranian diaspora. If you look at any other diaspora, you will see similar diversity.  

Let’s get more abstract. Historically, embassies implicitly suggest the legitimacy of the hosting government but do not necessarily suggest international approval of how that government behaves. Has there been a cultural shift in recent years, where the presence of an embassy is now understood to signal an acceptance of how a host state behaves?

This gets to the heart of the debate on whether we should re-establish diplomatic relations and there are different views on this. On my side, I do not accept the view that an embassy is an endorsement of the behaviour of a government. We had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, we have diplomatic relations with a number of other, very distasteful regimes—as we should. 

That being said, other people will say, no, we should not have diplomatic relations with Iran because an embassy legitimizes Iran’s actions and who Iran is. I disagree. We should have diplomatic relations when we have interests at state and when we are penalized by not having diplomatic relations. 

So, when does it make sense to end diplomatic relations?

My personal view is, we end relationships and withdraw embassies only in the most extreme circumstances. When, for example, the situation just becomes too dangerous, like we did in Syria after the war started in 2011. It was not realistic to keep an embassy in Syria. And that is a really difficult question, although it is a separate debate. 

Obviously, there are other cases where we don’t have an embassy because we have little to no interests at stake. As far as Canada is concerned, there are a number of countries in the world where we do not have an embassy and we do not really need one. It may be nice to have one yes, but in the context of scarce resources, it does not always make sense. 

In my view, these are the two cases where we don’t have diplomatic relations. Where we just don’t care or where it is just too physically dangerous. 

Should the Canadian government revive attempts to establish an embassy in Tehran? What steps need to be taken before we get back to the point where that becomes a politically viable option?

This is a difficult question to answer because it will always be a politically difficult option. The reality is that no government is going to win points by re-engaging with Iran because the Iranian government has bad press. One of the things the Liberals realized through 2016-17 is that re-establishing an embassy in Tehran was not a political winner. At some point, they realized that the costs outweigh the potential benefits. 

Could that cost-benefit calculus change a bit following the Ukrainian Air shootdown? Think of how the government would have to frame it. They would have to say “of course they are bad guys, we saw them shoot down the plane. But we also saw how costly it was not to have an embassy. So, on pragmatic grounds, in order to manage the fallout of the plane being shot down, in order to have better consular services, in order to have a presence on the ground to follow up with the investigation, we should have an embassy.” Politically, this would be a hard sell. 

Last question, while I have you. When should Canada try to re-open an embassy in Syria?

Not now, for two reasons: (a) the situation remains dangerous and (b) the reality is that it is difficult for Canada to lead on a situation like this. As long as all of our allies in Europe and in the US are not willing to do it, we should not be the first ones to do it.  

Beyond the issue of danger, there is an issue of legitimacy. As long as the international community is reluctant to legitimize—there’s that word again—the Assad regime (a very valid point), then it makes reconstruction and humanitarian assistance in Syria very difficult. This is a dilemma. It is easy to say we shouldn’t re-engage with the Assad regime—I definitely agree with this—but millions of Syrians are starving and suffering from the war. 

We should try to provide assistance through multilateral channels, but the Assad regime is hijacking these channels and is re-directing aid to areas supportive of the regime. An embassy might help with this. However, there are really difficult questions around this issue, which will exist for multiple years because that country is going to remain a mess for a long time. 

Juneau is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. He is the author of Squandered Opportunity: Neoclassical realism and Iranian foreign policy, editor of Strategic Analysis in Support of International Policy Making: Case studies in achieving analytical relevance and co-editor of Canadian Defence Policy in Theory and Practice and of Iranian Foreign Policy Since 2001. From 2003 until 2014, he worked with Canada’s Department of National Defence, mostly as a policy analyst covering the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.

Image courtesy of Puria Berenji on Unsplash

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