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Why Canada is getting it wrong on Iran

As west moves towards reconciliation with Tehran, Ottawa is making a big mistake by pursuing a wrong policy which isolates Iran and hurts its people.

Ever since Canada broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran, Ottawa has toughtened its stance on Iran, taking a similar approach to that of Israel.

As the west seizes upon the opportunity to engage with the moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, Canada just seems to be going in the opposite direction, ignoring not only calls for dialogue by the international community but also from the very Iranian dissident voices Ottawa claims to be defending. Instead, Canada is siding with radicals – dodgy exiled groups and rightwing Israelis – and moving away from the realities on the ground.

In 2012, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, John Baird, described Iran as “the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today” as it announced a unilateral decision to shut down his country’s embassy in Tehran and expel Iranian diplomats from the Canadian soil.

Within a year, as Rouhani travelled to New York to revamp Iran’s relations with the west backed by strong popular support at home, Baird warned “kind words, a smile and a charm offensive are not a substitute for real action.”

Later, as Iran and six world powers including Britain and the US, reached a historic nuclear agreement in Geneva, trying to defuse the threats of yet another war in the Middle East, Canada injected deep scepticism.

Canada’s big excuse is human rights. [..]

But Ottawa’s policy of isolating Tehran, at the time Rouhani is under pressure from internal hawks and fudamentalists, is doing a disservice both to the future of peace in the world and the wellbeing of Iranians themselves. By rejecting engagement with Iran, Canada is also turning a blind eye to repeated calls by leading Iranian opposition figures, for the unique opportunity created because of Rouhani’s election.

This week’s Iran human rights event at Canada’s parliament embodied what is wrong with Ottawa’s approach. A key speaker at a programme studying violations of human rights in Iran was Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the radical exiled group MEK, which was listed as terrorist organisation by the US and the UK until recently. The MEK, charactrised by many observers as a cult-like group, has been repeatedly slammed by the United Nation because of mistreating its own members.

The MEK appearance at the programme reportedly made the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, to withdraw from the event, the Nation’s Ali Gharib reported on Wednesday. To much criticism by the Iranian authorities, Shaheed has extensively reported on the violations of rights in Iran, including mistreatment of prisoners, some of whom are in fact in jail in Iran for having links to the MEK.

“If you want to improve human rights in Iran, don’t invite MEK leader, a group accused of serious human rights violations, as a speaker,” tweeted Golnaz Esfandiari, who blogs on Iran. The MEK remains extremely unpopular in Iran because of its support for the former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, during the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq. MEK fought against their countrymen at the time.

Earlier this month, Lobelog’s Eldar Mamedov detailed how the MEK is using human rights as its casus belli to mix up the complexities of politics inside Iran for an outsider eye and derail the process of Iran-west rapproachment. It looks as Canada is repeating a mistake the US and some European countries did decades ago by relying on radical groups such as MEK, or some Iranian monarchists, to keep itself updated about the complicated bigger picture of today’s Iran.

Moreover, Canada often berates Iran in the excuse of defending human rights activists and opposition figures who have been imprisoned in Iran. But when the very same people, including 50 prominent political prisoners, reached to US president Barack Obama asking him to end “crippling” economic sanctions hurting ordinary people in Iran and seize “the last chance” for dialogue with Tehran under Rouhani, Canada seemed to have sealed its ears.

Instead, it should listen to more reasonable voices, such as it own former ambassador to Tehran, John Mundy, who has stated it was wrong for Ottawa to cut diplomatic ties.

Let’s be clear, no one is denying the gross abuses of human rights in Iran or the challenges ahead in finding a permanent nuclear settlement with the Islamic republic. But human rights in Iran can only be improved by the ways of dialogue and engagement. This is why the recent visit to Iran by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who visited a number of leading women rights’ activists, was more effective than Canada’s many human rights statements.

Canada has had a very frosty relations with Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. It became more restrained in 2003 when an Iranian-Canadian photographer, Zahra Kazemi, died while in jail in Iran under torture because of a skull fracture. But if Ottawa is genuine about the wellbeing of Iranian citizens, including those persecuted in the country, it should reconsider its Iran policy. But for now, Canada is just getting it wrong on Iran.

Saeed Kamali Dehghan, 

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