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HomeIn-Depth AnalysisWhy Canada Needs a New Iran Policy

Why Canada Needs a New Iran Policy

Updated: Jan 24

BY POUYAN K. JAN : Pouyan is a student of Political Science and International Relations at the University of British Columbia. With an interest in foreign policy, Pouyan’s research focuses on EU-Canada relations and Middle Eastern affairs.

On 12 June 2018, Liberal and Conservative parliamentarians voted for a motion against restoring relations with Iran. The Liberal government blamed the decision on the death of Iranian-Canadian professor Seyed-Emami in an Iranian prison and Iranian authorities’ treatment of the late professor’s family. Interestingly however, the Trudeau government’s decision to vote against re-establishing diplomatic relations followed a meeting between President Trump and Prime Minister Trudeau during the G7 conference held in Quebec. One month earlier, President Trump had withdrawn the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and intended to punish countries that traded with Iran. Regardless of Ottawa’s intentions in halting diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic on June 12th, various underlying political and legal obstacles led to the failure of Trudeau’s outreach to Tehran.

Slow Progress

During the 2015 federal elections, Liberal candidate Justin Trudeau promised to improve relations with Iran and re-establish diplomatic relations. Later that year, Iran and world powers reached a historic nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which limited Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. The deal was enshrined in the UN Security Council Resolution 2231, unanimously endorsed by all 15 nations on the council. European business leaders, followed by high-level European diplomats, visited Tehran, including Germany’s vice-chancellor, Italian and French foreign ministers, and the EU’s foreign policy chief. Most importantly, after nearly 12 years, the British foreign secretary Philip Hammond flew to Tehran and re-opened the British embassy. Canada joined the international community and endorsed the nuclear agreement.

Following the lifting of sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, the Trudeau government lifted some of Canada’s sanctions on Iran. The lifting of sanctions provided an opportunity for Canadian businesses to invest in Iran’s untapped market. The Montreal-based aerospace and transportation company Bombardier submitted a draft contract for 10 CRJ-900 NextGen regional jets to an Iranian organization.

The first round of negotiations between Iranian and Canadian diplomats happened in 2016. In September of that year, Stéphane Dion met with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif at the UN. This was the first high-level bilateral meeting since the election of Mr. Trudeau. One week after the meeting, Concordia university Iranian-Canadian anthropology professor Homa Hoodfar was released from prison in Iran. Hoodfar’s release demonstrated that serious diplomatic engagement with Iran can produce positive results in addressing issues of concern. One year later, the UN hosted a meeting between Chrystia Freeland and Javad Zarif.

Lack of Political Will

In spite of the two high-level meetings, followed by a few rounds of negotiations between Iranian and Canadian diplomats in Tehran and Ottawa, the Trudeau government failed to move forward with re-establishing diplomatic relations. The embassies remained closed and Iranian-Canadians were still deprived of consular services. During the 2017 Iranian presidential elections, Iran asked Ottawa to allow polling stations as many Iranian-Canadians expressed their eagerness to participate in the election. The federal government refused. Canada’s refusal came as a surprise, given that the United States, under the Trump administration, agreed to host 55 polling stations. Many Iranian-Canadians had to drive across the border to cast their ballots. Ottawa’s noticeably slow diplomatic outreach to Tehran shed light on the Trudeau government’s lack of political will in restoring relations.

Legal Obstacles Remain

Furthermore, Ottawa’s efforts to re-establish diplomatic relations faced major legal obstacles. According to Dennis Horak, Canada’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, an underlying factor that prompted the previous conservative government to sever relations with Iran in 2012 and continues to undermine Canada-Iran relations, is Canada’s Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act. The Act, passed shortly before Prime Minister Harper’s decision to sever diplomatic relations, allowed for victims of terrorism to sue states that were listed as state-sponsors of terrorism in Canada. In 2014, an Ontario judge denied state immunity to Iran and ordered the seizure of more than $7-million worth of Iranian property and bank accounts in favor of two Americans who were held hostage in Lebanon during the 1980s.

According to Horak, this “stupid law” remains as a significant obstacle, effectively preventing a diplomatic breakthrough between Iran and Canada. As a precondition to re-establishing relations, Iran demands of Canada to grant the Islamic Republic state immunity under the Canada’s Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act. The federal government, restricted by the law, has denied Iran’s request. Moreover, amid the absence of a bilateral extradition agreement, both Harper and Trudeau denied Iran’s request through Interpol to extradite Mahmoud Reza Khavari, the notorious Iranian bank official who fled Iran due to his role in a 2011 embezzlement scandal.


Amid the Trump administration’s dangerous rhetoric against Iran, following the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, Canada must preserve and protect international law and therefore commit to UN Security Council resolution 2231. Moreover, from Syria to Afghanistan, Iran exerts considerable influence in the Middle East. Canada can pursue its national security interests by engaging with Iran as a partner in the fight against terrorism, amid Iran’s role in the fight against ISIS and Taliban in Syria and Afghanistan. Given that serious diplomatic engagement with Iran in 2016 resulted in the release of Homa Hoodfar, there remains the prospect of a diplomatic breakthrough on present issues of concern once Ottawa decides to re-engage the Islamic Republic. In return for Iran’s assistance in addressing Canada’s concerns regarding the condition of imprisoned Iranian-Canadians, though Canada’s Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act remains a critical obstacle, the Trudeau government can take the following steps to move the diplomatic process forward; including for Canada to restart talks with Iran, signal its willingness to grant state immunity to the Islamic Republic, open a visa office in Tehran, allow for Iranian polling stations in Canada for the country’s upcoming 2021 presidential elections, and or cooperate with Interpol and allow the extradition of Mr. Khavari. Iranian-Canadians have also repeatedly called for the deportation of Mr. Khavari over his role in the 2011 corruption scandal. With enough political will, the Trudeau government can reach a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran and fulfill its 2015 campaign promise to restore diplomatic relations.

The views expressed in the IPD’s blog are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute For Peace & Diplomacy, its executives, or its supporters.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor