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Why Iran-Canada Dialogue is Necessary in Iraq?

Millions of Shia Muslims gather around the Husayn Mosque in Karbala after making the Pilgrimage on foot during Arba’een.

By Wardah Malik

Last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi decreed that militia groups, known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), will be integrated into national armed forces and subject to the same regulations as the army. For Mahdi, integrating armed fractions is the only viable option to restore government control that was degraded with the spread of the Islamic State. Militias, however, will retain some autonomy by becoming a subsection of counter-terrorism service rather than a part of larger military unit. Consequently, Iraq’s military and political culture are rapidly shifting to accommodate varying interests. Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Iran-backed Righteous (Asaib Ahl al-Haq), is one of many militants who expressed public support for Mahdi’s decision and authority. With leaders such as al-Khazali becoming more involved in politics, it is clear that Iraq’s future is dependent on a harmonious relationship between militias and politicians.

The US, nevertheless, is more fearful of the potential threat of militias and, thus, hesitant to preserve the power of such groups; adding that PMF is under Iran’s “bidding” and working to dismantle US efforts in Iraq. In June, for example, U.S. officials accused Iran-affiliated militias of piloting drones from Iraq that targeted Saudi oil infrastructure. More recently, the PMF has claimed both Israel and the US of carrying out a series of drone attacks on Iraqi militia bases north of Baghdad. American officials, however, have denied any role in the explosions and stressed that Iran remains untrustworthy. Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, has also suggested that Iran uses proxies in Iraq to deliberately target U.S. troops: “Iran is very careful to never do it [drone attacks] themselves because they want to be able to have deniability.” Escalating tensions between U.S. and Iran, has prompted Canadian officials to express concern for troops deployed in Iraq. Nevertheless, Canada has announced that it will continue to command the NATO Mission in Iraq (NMI) until November 2020. This move overrides the previous decision to appoint leadership to another NATO member. 

The NMI, now under the leadership of Major-General Jennie Carignan, is a “non-combative” and “capacity-building” mission designed to strengthen Iraqi security forces and government institutions. As a Major General, Carignan will be responsible for 850 Canadian military personnel; with 250 soldiers part of NMI and 600 soldiers a part of the anti-ISIS coalition (“Operation IMPACT”). Scott Taylor, a former soldier in the Canadian armed forces, however, argues that new leadership does not mean “success for the NMI.” This is because NMI will continue to operate without a  “stated goal.”  Essentially, NMI intends to reform Iraqi institutions but due to its ambiguity fails to achieve an effective long-term solution that truly improves Iraqi society. Still, Canada has decided to extend its overseas mission, a move that Taylor says harms Canadian interest as it is done to appease allies instead of securing national interests.  

Although neither the Canadian government nor NATO have defined what success is for NMI, the mission still presents a useful opportunity for Canada to re-evaluate its position in Iraq. That is, the NMI allows Canada to uphold its international commitments on behalf of NATO whilst also expanding its diplomatic influence in the Middle East. Firstly, Canada has to come to terms with the changing landscape of Iraqi military structure and accommodate its own agenda accordingly. Simply put, Canada must adapt to and realize the important role Iran plays in Iraq’s newly reformed military and security apparatus. If long-term stability in the region is the ultimate objective, then Canada needs to open up and communicate with Iran through diplomatic channels –  a move that would spark great controversy after the Liberal Government overwhelmingly voted for the Conservatives’ motion in the House of Commons, calling on the government to ” abandon its current plan and immediately cease any and all negotiations or discussions with the Islamic Republic of Iran to restore diplomatic relations” and to “list the IRGC as a foreign terrorist entity under the Criminal Code.” Given the rising tensions between Iran and the US in Iraq, Canada’s ignorance of Iran’s military influence in the country and lack of engagement with the Iranians may drag Canada into an unwanted conflict in Iraq and damage the Iraqi-Canadian security alliance.

Over the years, the relationship between Iraq and Canada has been strengthened as Canada committed over $2 billion in restorative aid to reconstruct Iraqi territory destroyed by the Islamic State. However, the relationship was compromised when Canada provided substantial training and financial assistance to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, an anti-government coalition, to battle Islamic State jihadis in 2014. This move almost cost Canada its relationship with Iraq and, ultimately, forced Candian officials to retract support for Kurds in order to restore friendly relations with the Iraqi government. Although the intent of Canada was to battle terrorism, the support for the Kurds was done without input from the Iraqi government. Since then, Canada has supported a united Iraq and insisted on building a strong central government in Baghdad. In order to prevent further deterioration in Canada-Iraq relations, Canada must cooperate with all the parties approved by the government of Iraq as they are reforming their military and security apparatus.

Despite past border conflicts and previous agitations, the Iran-Iraq relationship is long-standing and it was reinforced after Iran managed to fill the political vacuum left by Saddam Hussein’s ousting. Since 2003, Iran has fostered Iraq’s nascent institutions by urging its closest allies – Badr, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), Dawa and the Sadrists to participate in politics. These Shi’ite parties dominate the state and extend Iranian soft power in Iraq’s military, social, and religious institutions. As such, Canada cannot ignore their political salience and power. There is little reason to believe that Iran will lose its influential position in Iraq. In fact, the recent integration of PMF signals the growing closeness between Iran and Iraq. As part of the NMI, Canada needs to address Iran’s position in the PMF and Iraq must facilitate this understanding. 

In May, Abdul-Mahdi promised to send a delegation to the US and Iran to “help end tensions between the two countries” adding that Iraq remains neutral in the conflict. As Canada and Iran do not have diplomatic relations  Iraq can play a mediatory role to open a channel of communication between Canada and Iran. Abdul-Mahdi has repeatedly stressed that Iraq has good relations with both Western countries and Iran and has “no desire in fighting a war.” In this vein, it is in Iraq’s best interest to help establish a diplomatic channel between Iran and Canada. A senior Iraqi diplomat, under the condition of anonymity, said: “Iraq would be ready to mediate between Iran and Canada but they  have to agree to negotiate first.” If Canada is serious about capacity building and maintaining good relations with Iraq, it should actively seek out communication with all parties with influence in Iraq including Iran. With established communication, the NATO extension can be used wisely and ultimately achieve long term stability in Iraq that goes beyond a year’s commitment.

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