Plane crash investigation could be Canada’s chance to re-open diplomatic ties with Iran: former minister
Canada’s embassy in Tehran was closed in 2012
A former federal minister says Canada should work together with Iran to investigate the plane crash that claimed 63 Canadian lives, as a step towards improving diplomatic relations between the two countries.
“I would hope that our involvement with the Iranians through this investigation will help to open the door, to the point where we can re-establish relations diplomatically,” said Allan Rock, who served as justice minister, and later minister of health under Jean Chrétien.
That would allow Ottawa to “get somebody on the ground in Tehran, who is a Canadian representative,” he told The Current’s Matt Galloway.
Canada’s embassy in Tehran was closed in 2012 by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, over concerns about human rights abuses committed by the Iranian regime.
Rock said he was “disappointed” by the move at the time.
“Merely having an embassy there and having their embassy here, does not mean that we approve of that government’s policies,” he said.
“It means that we recognize the importance of dialogue, notwithstanding our differences.”
Flight PS752 crashed Wednesday, minutes after it took off from Tehran. All 176 people onboard were killed, including dozens of Canadian-Iranians en route back to Canada.
The crash happened shortly after Iran launched a missile attack against Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops.
The investigation into the cause of the crash is still in its initial stages, but Thursday afternoon, sources told CBC News that U.S. officials shared intelligence with Canada that the airliner was shot down by an Iranian missile.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne spoke to Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif late Wednesday, and pushed for immediate access to the crash.
The Current requested an interview with Champagne, as well as Transport Minister Marc Garneau, but both declined.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that consular teams were being prepared to go to Iran. He added that Italy was offering support as an intermediary to Iran, and Australia, France and Ukraine had also offered assistance.
Lack of embassy could slow progress: former diplomat
Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson said he had no doubt those allies would be helpful.
But “they’ll have priorities too, and we would fall sort of second in that list,” he warned.
He also said that sending a consular team has limitations, because it takes time to get them there, and they won’t have the network of contacts that an established ambassador would have.
“One of the key roles of an embassy is to act as a co-ordinator for Canadian interests,” said Robertson, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“And obviously, we’ve got significant Canadian interests because a number of Canadians that were killed in this crash.”
Robertson agreed that re-establishing diplomatic relations would be beneficial, particularly for Canada’s application for a seat on the UN security council.
“One of the things that Canada has over both Ireland and Norway, our two competitors, is that we’re a G7 country,” he told Galloway.
“We really do have worldwide reach.”
Robertson believes that “the whole point of diplomacy is to be there.”
“We live in a very turbulent world, things are changing,” he said.
“And if you want to play, you have to be there.”
Canada has closed its embassy in Iran effective immediately and declared persona non grata, all remaining Iranian diplomats in Ottawa. Canada, views the government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today.
MG: John Baird was the conservative foreign affairs minister in September of 2012, and there have been no formal diplomatic relations between Ottawa and Tehran since. That might make getting answers about this crash harder to come by. Colin Robertson is vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former Canadian diplomat. Colin, good morning.
COLIN ROBERTSON: Good morning, Matt.
MG: What role would a Canadian ambassador in Iran play in the aftermath of a crash like this one?
COLIN ROBERTSON: Well, they’d immediately be talking about the foreign ministry and ministry that are responsible for the investigation, as well as fielding the calls from the families back in Canada and family members that would be in Tehran. You act as kind of a coordinator on Point Centre to deal with tragedies like this. Well, this is not– these things unfortunately happen and one of the key roles of an embassy is to act as a coordinator for Canadian interests. And obviously, we’ve got significant Canadian interests because a number of Canadians that were killed in this crash.
MG: So given the lack of relations, then how does Canada go about getting answers about the crash from around?
COLIN ROBERTSON: Well, we’ve had a number of other foreign countries have relations with Iran. So right now, I understand the Italians are principal managers, but there are others like the Dutch, the French, the British that we would be calling to ask for assistance as appropriate. Some of these citizens and some of these Canadians may also have other citizenship as well. So you work through that, but it is much harder. The whole point of diplomacy is to be there. And that’s why my view is which we should have somebody in Tehran. It’s not a good housekeeping seal of approval for the regime. It’s simply a means by which countries do business together because we all have interests.
MG: The prime minister was asked about this yesterday. He was speaking about how Ottawa is trying to work around its lack of Canadian diplomats in Iran. Here’s what he said.
We are preparing consular teams that will be prepared to go to Iran. There are conversations we have to have with the Iranian government. But as I said, Italy, that has played a role as our supporting power and our interlocutor in Iran for many years now has offered all the assistance they can offer. They have offered full assistance. Other countries like Australia and France and Ukraine and others have also offered their support.
MG: People are pulling together. But does the lack of a Canadian presence there truly put us on the back foot?
COLIN ROBERTSON: Yes, I think so. I have no doubt that our friends and allies will be helpful. But again, they’ll have priorities too. And we would fall short of second in that list. So again, you can send a team there, but it will take some time. By the time they get there, the days have elapsed and people usually want sort of immediate relief and they won’t have the contact base that you would have when you when you actually have somebody on site. That’s the whole point of having the diplomatic representation. You develop a network and contact base for use in any kind of emergency or any kind of contingency.
MG: And that’s what you mean when you say and you’ve written about this as well. Diplomacy is about being there. It’s about being on the ground.
COLIN ROBERTSON: Absolutely. Exactly. And, you know, this is a country of 80 million people. Again, we do not like its governments. And there are things their government has done that we appropriately criticize and have taken sanctions on. But the whole point of diplomacy is to be there. Use your eyes and your ears and your voice when and when necessary. That’s how you do business with people. You just don’t close doors. So I think this is a big enough country that we should probably – when the Trudeau government came in and there was talk that they would look at it. Then Foreign Minister Dion talked about and said, really, not having somebody there put us at a disadvantage. And I think that’s exactly right. So I think we should this should be hacked with a kind of a catalyst to once again think about having somebody there. Again, it’s not because we endorse the regime. It’s because we have significant interests representing the Canadians, the Iranian-Canadian community, as well as the students. Well, there’s a number of students from Iran that come to Canada again. That’s a that’s a service industry that the Canadian mission can help to facilitate.
MG: What happened in 2012? We heard John Baird speaking forcefully there about the Iranian government. What happened in 2012 that would lead Canada to break off diplomatic relations with Iran?
COLIN ROBERTSON: It was kind of a combination of things. The human rights abuses. There was a Canadian Iranian photographer, Zahra Kazemi, who was killed in Iranian captivity. At that point Mr. Baird said, okay, we’re simply going to break relations and declared the Iranians who were in Ottawa persona non grata, sent them home and then we closed our embassy and then sent families, had to rely upon others, as the prime minister noted, Italy, to facilitate our interests. My view was that I don’t think that we need to take that step. I think you can withdraw some of your members, some traditional- which happens when there’s a problem. You should withdraw your ambassador. But my view is that that’s when you really need an ambassador. The whole point of an ambassador is to– because they usually have the best set of contacts. So again, my perspective would be you keep your people there. Again, it’s not an endorsement of the government you’re dealing with, but it’s there to represent Canadian interests.
MG: What’s your sense as to why the Trudeau government hasn’t resumed diplomatic relations with Iran?
COLIN ROBERTSON: Well, I think they’ve had a lot on their plate for the whole Canada-U.S. relationship, Canada-China relationship, there has not been a lot of reinvestment in foreign affairs. We’ve shifted policy orientation. I think appropriately the feminist development policy. But there’s a lot on the agenda. And I think that this fell further back and simply just didn’t get dealt with. I think Foreign Minister Dion would have. But I think what Chrystia Freeland, came in, she came in with one major party, the appropriate one dealing with the United States relationship. And then since then, other things come along. The government has other priorities. But I think having diplomatic relationships, especially as we’re now planning, six months from now, we’ll be facing election for a seat on the Security Council. And one of the things that Canada has over both Ireland and Norway, our two competitors, is that we’re G7 country G20. We really do have worldwide reach. And I think being in places like Tehran, being in places like Pyongyang and North Korea will give us a perspective on international problems. And as a country that aspires to middle power status, you have to rely upon your diplomatic service. And we traditionally had a very good diplomatic service. You think back to Pearson’s days and the rest. And I think that’s something the government should reinvest in because we live in a very turbulent world. Things are changing. And if you want to play, you have to be there.
MG: Do you think, just briefly, do you think that decision or the lack of action from the Trudeau government has been influenced at all by the United States and its foreign policy?
COLIN ROBERTSON: I don’t think so. Because I think the magic Americans are always very interested in what we hear. We are a country that they find has the most similar sort of feel for. Things were different the United States. But they understand us. We understand them. So they’re always very interested. When we did have a chargé in Tehran. We have somebody in Havana. They’re always very interested in what we’re hearing and picking up. So I don’t think this was as a result of U.S. pressure. Again, you can take a forceful stand, but you can still be there and the Americans are, they are always interested in the Canadian perspective on what we’re hearing.
MG: Colin Robertson, thank you.
8:30 – The tensions between the US and Iran are escalating quickly. Iran launched more than a dozen missiles at US forces in Iraq yesterday, but no US casualties were reported. The middle-eastern nation warned the US not to retaliate after the attack, which was done in retaliation for the US killing of Iranian General Quasem Soleimani earlier this week. Although no US casualties have been reported, 63 Canadians and 113 others died when their plane crashed due to a suspected mechanical issue just minutes after taking off from the Iranian capital following the missile strikes. To help analyze the situation, and what Canada should be doing in response, John is joined by Colin Robertson with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
LIVE: Colin Robertson, former diplomat, commentator, and vice-president at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute
The Canadian government signalled its determination to stay the course in Iraq, where about 500 Canadian soldiers are posted, despite Iran’s vow to avenge the U.S. killing of a prominent military leader.
Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne’s office said Monday he spoke to his Iraqi counterpart, Mohamed Ali al-Hakim, about the contributions Canada is making there – and that he pledged Canada would continue to deliver that aid.
“The Minister reiterated Canada’s ongoing commitment to a stable and united Iraq and to ensuring the enduring defeat of Daesh [the Islamic State],” Mr. Champagne’s office said in a statement.
“Canada is deeply engaged in development, humanitarian, military and diplomatic efforts to support Iraq. Minister Champagne pledged to continue to work with the government of Iraq to achieve the peace, stability and prosperity that the people of Iraq want and deserve.”
Iran has vowed to strike back at the United States, which has a huge presence in neighbouring Iraq, after a U.S. drone strike in Iraq last week that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force.
Canada’s commitment to keep operating in Iraq came out the same day media reports suggested the United States is considering a withdrawal of troops. News outlets reported the U.S. military had informed Iraq it was repositioning troops for a withdrawal but the Pentagon and Defence Secretary Mark Esper later denied this.
Canada’s military aid to Iraq stems from 2014 after Islamic State militants cut a swath of destruction across Syria and Iraq.
There are about 500 Canadian Forces members in Iraq today. This includes approximately 200 Canadian soldiers in Baghdad who are part of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization training operation, another 20 Canadian Forces engineers in Besmaya, southeast of Baghdad, as well as another 30 in Erbil with a tactical-aviation detachment that operates three CH-146 Griffon helicopters to carry Canadian troops, equipment and supplies. It also includes Canadian special-forces soldiers engaged in training Iraqi fighters.
Canadian diplomats in Iraq include Canada’s ambassador to Iraq, Ulric Shannon, in Baghdad as well as approximately half a dozen staff. Canada also operates a small consulate in Erbil.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, asked if Canada supports the U.S. strikes that killed Gen. Soleimani, said Canada backs efforts to deter future attacks on its soldiers and those of its allies.
“We need to make sure we as a coalition protect our people and prevent future attacks,” he told CTV’s Power Play. “The Quds organization, that has been supporting proxy groups in the region, has been responsible for thousands and thousands of deaths – plus also putting our own personnel at risk.”
Mr. Sajjan, asked if Canada has put extra security measures in place to protect Canadian soldiers, declined to discuss matters of operational security but said, “Decision and planning is currently going on to making sure that we are in a good posture.”
Asked if he believes Canada’s soldiering work should continue in Iraq – both training and assistance in fighting Islamic State militants – the Canadian Defence Minister said he is concerned about a “serious threat of a resurgence of Daesh [Islamic State] in that region.” He said Canada wants to continue its mission there but is studying how best to do that.
Separately, Monday, NATO’s top civilian leader also said the military alliance is standing fast in Iraq and signalled that member countries back the United States.
Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg spoke to reporters in Brussels Monday following an emergency meeting. He singled out Iran when talking about the need to lower tensions.
“We are united in condemning Iran’s support of a variety of different terrorist groups,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “At the meeting … allies called for restraint and de-escalation. A new conflict would be in no one’s interest. So Iran must refrain from further violence and provocations.”
He added that “all allies have several times expressed their concerns about Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, including Iran’s support for different terrorist groups.”
Late Monday, the Prime Minister’s Office said Justin Trudeau spoke with Mr. Stoltenberg and “They emphasized … the need to support security and stability in Iraq and the wider region, notably through ongoing counter-Daesh efforts.” The pair “agreed on the important role of the NATO training mission in strengthening Iraqi security capacity.”
Iraqi lawmakers passed a non-binding resolution on Sunday to expel U.S. troops from Iraq.
Mr. Stoltenberg said NATO member-country troops intend to remain in Iraq and continue to assist with training Iraqi soldiers. He said training has been suspended because of the security situation but that NATO members intend to resume it when possible.
“I strongly believe the NATO training mission is good for Iraq and NATO allies.”
Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat who is now vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the government is likely making contingency plans for its presence in Iraq, including the possibility of pulling troops out of the country. He said a combat situation would make it hard for the Canadian-led training mission to continue.
“The bottom line is can we continue with a training mission and do it effectively so it’s not going to be harmful to our trainers and is going to have some positive effect in Iraq?” Mr. Robertson said. “It’s a real possibility that we would not stay.”
Trump’s Soleimani killing the latest blow to allies’ trust in United States: experts
U.S. President Donald Trump ordered a drone strike on Jan. 3 to kill Soleimani, who was Iran’s top general and widely credited as the architect behind Iran’s efforts to expand its influence across the Middle East. That strike killed the general and others en route from the airport in Baghdad, Iraq.
Allies were reportedly given no advance notice of the strike, including those with troops and personnel on the ground in the Middle East.
And as Trump continues to publicly muse about attacking Iranian cultural landmarks — which would constitute a war crime — allies including the U.K., France, Germany and Canada are calling for restraint as concerns grow about how Iran could retaliate to the targeted killing.
“At the working level, relations between the U.S. and its allies remain very good,” said Stephanie Carvin, assistant professor of international relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.
“At the higher level, I think there’s a growing concern about U.S. behaviour and the lack of consultation.”
Responses issued by allies since the strike have called for de-escalation of the conflict.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne put out a statement highlighting the need for “all sides to exercise restraint” and made a point of noting that Canada has held longstanding concern about the “aggressive actions” of Soleimani.
His counterpart in the U.K. warned against conflict with Iran, calling it “in none of our best interests.”
Germany called the attack a “dangerous escalation.” United Nations Secretary-General pleads for de-escalation of tensions between U.S., Iran
But the head of the British Parliament’s foreign affairs committee offered a biting criticism of the attack, one that struck at the root of many of the questions being raised about Trump’s decision to take unilateral action without notifying allies.
“The purpose of having allies is that we can surprise our enemies and not each other,” said Tom Tugendhat in an interview with the BBC.
Steve Saideman, who holds the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University, also suggested the targeted killing has hurt trust in the U.S. for its allies and that the responses by many to its move say a lot.
“They’ve come to realize the U.S. is not a reliable ally and they’re not going to stick their necks out for the U.S.,” he said.
“The fact they haven’t jumped to the U.S. side, that’s telling.”
Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson said he’s not so sure the move itself will damage trust, given the precedent for keeping such actions secret from allies in cases where leaks may be feared.
Elliot Tepper, emeritus professor of international affairs at Carleton University, agreed that while it is normal for such decisions to be taken without advance warning to allies in such cases, it’s also customary that allies with people on the ground who could be hurt or targeted be given a heads up.
Tepper, however, suggested that allies will likely hold off on wading further into the mire for now, until they have a clearer sense of what will happen next.
“It’s going to be a wait-and-see situation in the immediate future.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared to express frustration with the responses from allies, claiming the killing saved American and European lives and that allies voicing concern were not being as “helpful as I wish that they could be.”
That frustration is likely being similarly felt by allies worried about having few voices left in the U.S. administration who understand and value them.
“A lot of those people who were around him, who understood the value of alliances, are gone,” said Carvin, pointing to figures like John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff, and former defence secretary and respected retired military general James Mattis.
“That’s a huge problem because you can’t trust anyone.”
Mattis resigned in December 2018 in response to a decision by Trump to pull American soldiers out of Syria — a move the president made without consulting any of the U.S. allies also involved in the response to the ongoing civil war in that country and the spread of the so-called Islamic State terrorist group.
Two days after that withdrawal was ordered last year, Turkey invaded northern Syria and attacked Kurdish forces, key Western allies in the fight against ISIS in the region who Trump was promptly accused of abandoning.
In November 2019, the U.S. Department of Defence watchdog said in a report to Congress citing American intelligence that ISIS used that Turkish invasion and the U.S. withdrawal to recalibrate its resource networks and its abilities to plot attacks abroad.
That same report said ISIS is now resurgent.