As widespread protests in Iran reached their sixth day, Iranian-Canadians are voicing concern for their loved ones and calling on Canada to show greater solidarity with peaceful demonstrators. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Protests spark renewed debate over plan to restore ties with Iran

OTTAWA — Several days of deadly protests in Iran have rekindled the debate over the Trudeau government’s ongoing efforts to restore diplomatic ties with Tehran.

At least 21 people have been killed and hundreds arrested during six days of protests across Iran that have been described as the most significant challenge to the country’s ruling regime in nearly a decade.

The unrest began Thursday when demonstrators gathered to express anger at unpaid wages and rocketing inflation before spreading into expressions of dissatisfaction with the current government.

In response to the deaths, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office issued a statement Tuesday in support of the demonstrators while calling on Iranian authorities to show restraint.

“Canada is deeply troubled by the deaths of protesters in Iran,” Freeland’s spokesman, Adam Austen, said in a statement. “We call on the Iranian authorities to uphold and respect democratic and human rights.”

But the protests have also cast a fresh spotlight on the Liberal government’s plan to renew ties with the Islamic republic, which the Harper Conservatives cut in 2012.

The Liberals pledged during the federal election in 2015 to restore relations with Iran, and Global Affairs officials have since held several rounds of quiet discussions with Iranian counterparts.

A senior official from Iran’s foreign ministry told the state-run Mehr News Agency on Dec. 18 that the two sides had recently wrapped up a fifth round of talks, and that another had been planned for early in 2018.

“We are planning to deploy an Iranian delegation at the directorate-general level to Canada following the New Year holidays,” Mohammad Keshavarzzadeh, general director of American affairs, was quoted as saying.

Austen did not immediately respond to questions over whether the protests would affect those planned talks or the government’s overall plan to re-engage with Iran.

Federal opposition parties, academics and members of the Iranian-Canadian community were already sharply divided over the Liberal plan to restore diplomatic ties with Tehran, and that continued on Tuesday.

“One of the prime minister’s early commitments was to re-engage with Iran and re-open that embassy,” said Iranian-Canadian lawyer and human rights activist Kaveh Shahrooz.

“Now I think frankly it’s probably time to abandon that promise and focus on the moral act of supporting the protesters.”

The Harper government cited several reasons for closing the Canadian embassy in Tehran and ejecting all Iranian diplomats from Canada in 2012, including Iran’s support for terror and its abysmal human rights record.

Those concerns remain valid and reason enough not to re-engage even without the protests, said Conservative foreign affairs Erin O’Toole, who criticized what he saw as a weak Liberal response to the demonstrations.

“At this time, and with what Iran is doing in the wider region, we don’t think we should be focusing on improving relations,” O’Toole said. “We should be isolating the regime.”

Yet others, such as NDP foreign affairs critic Helene Laverdiere, say the protests underscore the need for Canada to actually have a diplomatic presence on the ground in Iran to monitor and try to influence events.

“Of course, if it reaches a point where we say, ‘Look, we cannot move further into renewing diplomatic relations,’ it may reach that point,” Laverdiere said.

“But I think at this time, it’s more important to look towards the future and press the point that Iranian authorities need to respect the right to protest and all sides need to avoid violence.”

Thomas Juneau, an expert on Middle East politics at the University of Ottawa, said the Liberals knew the Iranian regime was brutal and repressive when they promised to re-engage with Tehran.

“The broader calculus that it would be in Canada’s interests to have an embassy in Iran doesn’t change,” he said. “(The protests) are something to keep in mind, but it doesn’t fundamentally change anything.”

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