by Navid Hassibi
As the two-year anniversary of the Iran nuclear deal approaches, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has an opportunity to put his government’s new approach to foreign policy into effect by expressing support for the historic agreement reached between world powers and Iran, particularly as uncertainty increases surrounding the Trump administration’s support for the deal. On Iran, Canada should pick up where the Obama administration left off and work to ensure that the deal is upheld and engage Tehran on matters of shared interest.
Last month, in a rousing speech before Canada’s House of Commons in response to the Trump administration’s inward-looking foreign policy, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland doubled down on the rules-based international order Canada helped shape. In doing so, she said that Canada would step up and lead on the world stage and placed emphasis on the importance of multilateralism in preserving the global order.
To be sure, the best of multilateralism was displayed when the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany, and the European Union successfully negotiated the nuclear accord with Iran nearly two years ago, ending a longstanding international security dispute without having fired a single shot. Since then, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal is formally known, has been performing as it was designed to and has made the world safer by rolling back Iran’s nuclear program and verifiably preventing Iranian nuclear proliferation in exchange for sanctions relief. More importantly, the JCPOA prevented a catastrophic war in a region already embroiled in strife. The United States and Iran were on the brink of war just a few short years ago over Iran’s nuclear program. Thanks to the political will of both Presidents Obama and Hassan Rouhani of Iran, the crisis was averted.
The political will that previously existed is no longer balanced and the threat of conflict with Iran has needlessly re-emerged. President Trump has shown little inclination to engage Iran and has so far begrudgingly supported the nuclear deal while his administration finalizes its Iran policy review. In his remarks to the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee a few weeks ago, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson very openly endorsed regime change in Iran as part of U.S. policy and indicated that he had no plans to engage Tehran. How disengagement and hostility against Iran benefits U.S. interests remains to be seen, particularly since Tillerson’s predecessor, John Kerry, worked tirelessly to establish an open line of communication with Iran that helped improve relations between once arch enemies. If Tillerson’s statement is any indication, the Trump administration’s Iran policy review is destined to lead Washington toward confrontation with Tehran and could be the beginning of the end of the nuclear deal. This is where Canada should step in to play a larger role.
Canada’s voice on the international stage has been largely amplified thanks to the charisma and progressive politics of Prime Minister Trudeau. Indeed, according to a recent study, Canada is the country with the most positive influence in the world. The prime minister has an opportunity to leverage his star power in support of diplomacy and peace with Iran. Much as President Obama did during his time in office, the prime minister can be vocal before the media and in his meetings with world leaders about the benefits of the nuclear deal.
Perhaps more importantly, he can persuade President Trump of the merits of the nuclear agreement. The prime minister did say recently that based on his experience, the president “actually does listen” and Trump recently praised Trudeau at the G20 Summit, saying that “everybody loves him.” Although Canada was not directly involved in negotiating the nuclear deal, it is legally bound by it through UN Security Council resolution 2231 which formally endorses it and which mandated international nuclear-related sanctions, including Canada’s, to be lifted. To be certain, Canada would not be alone in defending the nuclear deal. The European Union has already been vociferous in its support for the agreement, regardless of the Trump administration’s stance.
Not only would upholding the nuclear deal be good stewardship of the rules-based liberal international order, it is also in Canada’s national interest. Significant business opportunities for Canadian businesses exist in Iran in all sectors as a result of the suspension/lifting of nuclear-related sanctions.
Since implementation of the nuclear deal began a year and a half ago, Canada’s major allies and trading partners have been relentlessly pursuing their economic interests in Iran. For example, the European Union’s two-way trade with Iran increased nearly 55 percent in 2016 from the previous year following the nuclear deal. The EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, outright stated that the EU wanted to be Iran’s largest trading partner, a position it once held pre-sanctions. Iran has signed deals with French auto maker Peugeot and aircraft producer Airbus. This latter deal is worth $23 billion for over 100 airliners to replace Iran’s aging fleet. Iran also signed a deal two weeks ago with French oil company Total totaling nearly $5 billion over 20 years. Germany’s Volkswagen has also announced that it will be re-entering the Iranian market after a 17-year hiatus. Even US-based Boeing agreed to a $17 billion deal to sell passenger jets to Iran in a transaction that will reportedly support over 100,000 US jobs.
Canada Builds on Obama Legacy
From a geopolitical perspective, as the Trump administration re-orients US foreign policy in the Middle East away from regional balance in favour of Saudi Arabia and its allies, Canada has an opportunity to continue the Obama administration’s approach by defending the nuclear deal, promoting co-existence among the key players in the region and discouraging the zero-sum game they are pursuing. To be sure, although some in the region saw the nuclear deal as a US tilt toward Tehran, the agreement is preventing regional nuclear proliferation. Increased stability in this region would directly benefit Canadian interests since it is involved in the fight against the Islamic State in northern Iraq. Ottawa also provides humanitarian assistance to displaced Syrians in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and has welcomed over 35,000 refugees from the region in 2016 alone.
Should Ottawa step up its advocacy of the Iran nuclear deal, particularly if the Trump administration actively works to undermine it or withdraws from it altogether, it should also restore diplomatic ties with Tehran and pursue a pragmatic policy of engagement based on Iran’s continued adherence to the nuclear deal. Moreover, it should pursue cooperation on issues of mutual interest including trade, the environment and the fight against the Islamic State. It could also engage Tehran directly on issues of great concern such as human rights conditions in Iran, including the arbitrary detention of dual nationals, as well as Tehran’s regional activities that Canada and the West consider to be destabilizing. To that end, reports that Canadian officials were in Tehran recently are to be welcomed.
The fate of the historic nuclear deal is at stake as the Trump administration increases its hostility toward Iran. The ongoing nuclear crisis in the Korean peninsula should serve as a reminder to opponents of the deal not to take the agreement for granted. Canada has an opportunity to pick up where the Obama administration left off by defending and upholding the nuclear agreement in support of a peaceful rules-based international order.
Navid Hassibi is with the Council on International Policy. He tweets @navidhassibi. The views expressed here are solely his. A similar version of this piece previously appeared in the Huffington Post. Photo: Chrystia Freeland and Justin Trudeau by Joseph Morris via Flickr.