The Conservative government said Tuesday it would boycott a United Nations disarmament conference chaired by Iran — currently targeted by sanctions over its rogue nuclear arms program — on the grounds that it makes a “mockery” of the effort against arms proliferation. It is the latest sign of a new boldness in Canada’s stance against the Islamic Republic.
Since late last year, Canada has recalled its diplomats from Tehran, expelled Iran’s from Ottawa, openly called for regime change, condemned next month’s Iranian elections as a “cynical charade,” expanded economic sanctions, and praised Israel for a bombing raid inside Syria against Iranian-backed Hezbollah arms shipments. Ottawa’s increasingly vocal and outward enmity toward one particular autocratic regime demonstrates a targeted hostility rarely seen out of Ottawa, and perhaps not since the Second World War. The Conservatives are hardly being shy about their intent: They want the current Iranian leadership gone.
John Baird, the Foreign Minister, has launched a social media campaign to incite democratic opposition to the Iranian regime, both globally and behind the country’s notorious “Halal” Internet firewall, which blocks access to foreign sites after 60 seconds.
“The people mock ‘Halal’ Internet for the ridiculous proposition that it is,” Mr. Baird said at a University of Toronto conference last weekend to launch Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran, which broadcasts academic debates over the web in Farsi and English under special security settings to protect anonymity, thwart censors, and encourage dissident communities.
“Since we suspended diplomatic relations with Iran in September of last year, we’ve been expanding our outreach with Iranians in Canada and Iranians around the world, and we’ve been asking them a number of questions, but one of the most important questions [is] ‘What can Canada do to counter the threat posed by the Iranian regime?’” said a government source, speaking on background.
The most common answer, he said, was that the Iranian regime’s greatest vulnerability is information.
“The Iranian people need weapons, but when they say ‘weapons,’ they don’t mean small arms or heavy weapons. They mean access to the free internet, the ability to have an unfettered conversation among themselves, the ability for people inside the country to hear the democratic voices based outside the country, the ability to connect and engage in a free and open debate about the future of their country,” the official said. “So this Global Dialogue is the government of Canada’s inaugural effort to facilitate, support and encourage that requirement.”
Mr. Baird, directly addressing the Iranian people, said they themselves are the Iranian government’s greatest fear, and so Canada’s goal is “robust elections which take power out of the hands of puppet masters and place it in your hands, the hands of the people.”
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of the theocratic government, is “the greatest threat to international peace and security in the world today,” Mr. Baird said. “The regime is hollow. It does not have the depth, the intellect, the humanity, or the humility to bring about a better future for its people.”
The aggressive language is consistent with, even if it is the starkest example of, the Canadian government’s foreign policy under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which it promotes as “principled,” in contrast to the compromising stance of previous Liberal governments. Now that it has abandoned all pretense of diplomacy with official Iran and is instead openly inciting revolution against it, however, critics worry Canada may have sacrificed impact for principle. Houchang Hassan-Yari, a professor of politics at Royal Military College of Canada, wonders if Ottawa has anything left to offer besides supportive gestures.
“Is the voice of Canada strong enough that Iranians will go out and put in danger their lives?” said Prof. Hassan-Yari, who has also taught in Iran. “Unfortunately for Canada’s influence in Iran, I would say it is zero. There is no influence … I don’t say there is no value in these activities, but I’m doubtful about the results.”
The Canadian government’s goal may be nurturing the fledgling groups of dissidents in Iran. But, the Iranian regime has proved itself determined and powerful in the face of existential threats.
“Are those people going to get out on the street and call for the end of the regime?” Prof. Hassan-Yari said. “They did in 2009, what was the result?”
The result was brutal oppression — imprisonment, torture, murder — epitomized for the wider world by the shooting death of protester Neda Agha-Soltan, which was caught on video, and became an icon of the resistance, even as it failed.
“There was a sense of disappointment,” said Prof. Hassan-Yari. “Now the outside tries to do something, and I’m not sure the inside is going to react the same way it did in 2009.”
Mr. Baird acknowledged Canada “should have been more vocal in supporting this movement. We could have done more. From our desktops, we did modest things to stand with you,” he said.
Canada’s relationship with Iran has long been abysmal, especially so since the 2003 murder of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian Canadian freelance photographer who was tortured and killed after her arrest in Tehran.
It was recently strained by RCMP allegations that the suspects in the VIA train plot were acting at the behest of al-Qaeda elements inside Iran. Asked about this report, the Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said it was the most hilarious thing he had ever heard, because al Qaeda’s fundamentalist Sunni version of Islam is at odds with Iran’s Shia theocracy.
‘Unfortunately for Canada’s influence in Iran, I would say it is zero. There is no influence … I’m doubtful about the results’
There is a history of cooperation, however, for instance when al Qaeda fighters entered Iran from Afghanistan after the 2001 American invasion, and Iran’s support for Hamas in Gaza.
Canada imposed sanctions in 2006, following the UN’s lead amid reports of escalating nuclear production, and has since broadened them, most recently in December. It has declared Iran a state sponsor of terrorism, and listed both Iran-sponsored Hezbollah and the Quds Force, part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, as terrorist entities.
“We simply lost what little faith we had in this regime,” Mr. Baird said. “But we have never lost faith in the people of Iran. In fact, we want to expand our relations with Iranians, free from the regime’s filters.”
There is a flipside to Canada’s outreach to Iranians, which is Iran’s outreach to Canadians — or in its international jabs against Canada — for example in the use of fringe mouthpieces, including hosting radical Canadian aboriginal leaders to denounce Canada as a violator of human rights, and academics such as Shiraz Dossa, who have attended Iranian conferences on Holocaust revisionism.
Joshua Blakeney, a Calgary-based correspondent for Iran’s state-owned Press TV who recently told its audience the VIA plot looks like “Zionist” propaganda, said in an email: “I don’t think Iranians want any lectures on democracy from John Baird. The only kind of dissent induced by Baird’s latest propaganda stunt will be yet more dissent against the election-fraud Harper ‘government,’ a regime which many people in the Middle East view as having no independence from Israel.”
Canada’s Defence Minister, Peter MacKay, whose Iranian-born wife Nazanin Afshin-Jam also spoke at the conference about child executions in Iran, said he is convinced that the Ayatollah’s “diabolical dictatorship” will fall. He said he looks forward to a better Iran for their six-week-old son Kian to visit “as a citizen, not a soldier.”
“We want Iranians unburdened, unshackled from this regime,” he said. “We want you to be able to drink from the fountain of freedom, and join the global community of free states.”