The looming Iran crisis

Ali Ehsassi: Canadian government should distinguish between the Iranian government and the Iranian public

On Sunday, January 22nd 2012, The Iranian-Canadian Congress hosted a panel discussion on the aftershock resulting from increasing Canadian sanctions and international pressure on Iran. Last week Salam Toronto published the full transcript of Dr. Ramin Jahanbegloo’s speech at the event. Also among the five panellists speaking on the issue was international trade lawyer and former Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade official Ali Ehsassi. The following is the full record of Mr. Ehsassi’s unscripted remarks:

Ali Ehsassi, international trade lawyer and former  Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade official. - Photo by Salam Toronto

Ali Ehsassi, international trade lawyer and former Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade official. - Photo by Salam Toronto

 I’d like to welcome all of you and thank those who put in the time to make today’s event possible.


It’s timely that we have this event because we’re dealing with very complex issues.

Having spoken to many friends here, I know many have had sleepless nights because there are so many issues on the table, and it’s very difficult to make sense of all the complex issues.

That having being said, initially I was asked to speak about the sanctions, as a lawyer, but then regrettably we received a phone call that Professor Zandi from York University could not join us. So I was advised instead to actually speak about broader issues and not just legal sanctions. I’ve never been known to make sense, but since there has been a switch in topics, it may very well be somewhat justifiable that my comments will not be as precise as Professor Jahanbegloo’s or Professor Hassan-Yari’s.

But I look at the challenges we face both as an Iranian and a Canadian, and can say that I am very much disturbed about the pattern of developments. The two sides of me, whether it be the Canadian or the Iranian, are perfectly aligned in being critical of the approach our government has adopted.

I think before I get into what I deem to be the irresponsible position of the federal government, I should acknowledge two realities. The first reality is that one should accept that a lot of Canadians are very much concerned about developments in Iran and the reality that it may be developing nuclear weapons. It would be well to remember that Canada was one of the first countries in the world which had the option to develop nuclear weapons, but chose not to do so. After the Second World War, Canada forewent the opportunity to develop or stockpile a nuclear arsenal. Obviously a lot of Canadians are concerned and that’s the first point I wanted to make.

The second point I want to emphasize to preface my remarks is that we are dealing with a government in Iran which is not deemed a credible player on the international stage. Of course this is a reality that became known to every single Canadian several years ago when we had to deal with the tragic fate of Ms. Zahra Kazemi and the savagery displayed by the Iranian Government in the summer of 2009. These are well known to a lot of Canadians. In addition, there are many other incidents which fully demonstrate that we are not dealing with a credible government in Iran – of course every single time Iran is under pressure, they call Canadian diplomatic representatives in Tehran to the mat to criticize Canada on things like the G20 conference we had here, or on aboriginal issues. Now, those are serious things that I do not wish to belittle, but I believe it to be high comedy that the Iranian government can stand there and lecture the Canadian government.
So those two qualifiers being in place – that firstly Canadians have a legitimate right to be concerned and also that Iran is not your ideal type of country to have to deal with on such sensitive issues, I would like to say the following.

What concerns me to no end is the fact that this particular government is constantly ratcheting up the rhetoric. How many times have people here in this auditorium and beyond heard the Prime Minister say that he is scared of Iran. I, for one, do not think that that this is statesmanly or that it’s responsible for any political leader to constantly emphasize such types of concerns to the general public.

I also do not think its incumbent upon this government to constantly resort to megaphone diplomacy. And I think the Government does so knowing full well that it obviously is not very effective diplomatically, and only considers domestic Canadian politics and is trying to make hay of an issue which is a very serious one indeed.

In addition to that, there are several other concerns as well. The first one is that I think that the Canadian government should certainly distinguish between the Iranian government and the Iranian public. The Government does not do so and they should make a point of doing so, whether it’s Iranians here in Canada or whether it’s Iranians back in Iran.

The third thing is that the Canadian Government has demonstrated no willingness to actually communicate with Iranian-Canadians. If you consider other countries, and if you look at the Obama administration, in particular U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, she goes out of her way to contact Iranian media outlets and deals publicly with various Iranian specialists. That has certainly not been the pattern here in Canada.

Lastly, I think it is quite laughable that this Prime Minister designated an individual, Mr. John Weston, an MP from Vancouver, a couple of years ago, and said this gentleman is my liaisons to the Iranian-Canadian community. Well I can tell you full well that I know of very few Iranians who have heard from Mr. John Weston over the course of the last several months. I think it’s absolutely imperative that he reach out to people like you and listens to what we have to say on these very significant issues.
But as I said, I think this government has proven tone deaf. For example, a few months ago, approximately 1,500 Iranians, which included many individuals such as two of the distinguished panellists who are here today, signed on to a petition that they sent to the Minister of Immigration [regarding Mr. Khavari]. The Minister of Immigration has not even seen fit to acknowledge the fact that 1,500 Iranians have written to him on this particular issue. I think that’s irresponsible.

That having been said, I’ll get in to more specific issues. I think that as a general issue when it comes to war, it’s very irresponsible for the Prime Minister to constantly say he is scared of Iran. We have also seen the same emphasis from the Minister of Defence and we’ve also seen the same from the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Now, I should say that on November 12, 2011 when the Globe and Mail actually reported on the remarks of several cabinet ministers in this country who stated that Canada will stick to its allies should they intend to strike at Iran, I was immensely gratified to look at all the comment postings that went on the Globe & Mail website. I have never seen such an outpouring of concern by Canadians. Over 1,500 Canadians took the time to go to the Globe and Mail website to criticize this government’s aggressive approach to the issue of Iran. I don’t believe for a second that Canadians think war is something to be taken lightly and I think they expect the Canadian government to turn every stone before it intends to ratchet up the rhetoric or perhaps assist our allies [in striking at Iran].

I think we should applaud the ICC which, at the time, saw bellicose sentiments coming from the cabinet, and assumed the lead to send a letter to the government, stating that it was its understanding that the vast majority of Iranians are against war. So thank you very much to the ICC for adopting a stance on this issue.

The Canadian tradition in foreign affairs has always been to be a helpful fixer and to try to the best of its abilities, to actually bring countries together and to work out a resolution. That is the Pearsonian tradition that so many Canadians are very proud of as Professor Jahanbegloo pointed out. That is our traditional role. Even if our own allies are very much concerned about developments elsewhere, instead of acting irresponsibly, what we have always done in our diplomatic history, is to tell our friends to work out and resolve their differences.

And I can give you several examples where Canada has not acted in lock step with its allies. When in the 1960’s, the U.S. went to Vietnam, the Canadian government refused to go to Vietnam. Despite taking a lot of flak, Prime Minister Pearson said “no” – even if the US is going to Vietnam, we’re not supporting it. More recently, as you are all aware, many countries went to war with Iraq. But at that particular juncture, Prime Minister Chretien said it’s no business of Canada’s to go to Iraq and wage war. And I think that was an incredibly popular thing for the government to do at the time.

I would hope that this particular government adopts the same nuanced approach when it comes to significant issues such as war. That would be my first sentiments in regard to war, and I would hope that the government does not consistently resort to megaphone diplomacy.

When it comes to sanctions, I think it is absolutely imperative that, to the extent possible at least, this government attempts to introduce smart sanctions which do not have an impact on all Iranians and to the extent possible limits the application of these sanctions to members of the Iranian government as opposed to bludgeoning all Iranians – whether it be the public back in Iran or whether it be the Iranian-Canadian public here.

They have adopted these measures and our two other distinguished panellists will get more deeply into this, but I don’t think these measures are smart sanctions, they are broad brush. Lastly, I would like to emphasize, that the Canadian government should really consider how it chisels these sanctions and makes sure, to the extent possible, that all of us are not victims of sanctions of general application. They should try to be expansive with the exemptions provided in the Canadian regulations. It remains very vague at this particular point and I think it is incumbent on government bureaucrats to try to reach out to us to taper the exemptions to the sanctions.

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