On Jan. 3, Iran summoned Canada’s envoy to Tehran to protest Canada’s “blatant violation of human rights.” Tehran took aim at Canada’s treatment of its Aboriginals, in the wake of the Attawapiskat crisis. Three days later, on an Alberta radio show, Prime Minister Stephen Harper called Iran “the world’s most serious threat to international peace.” This less than amicable exchange captures the current state of affairs between Canada and Iran, badly strained since the death of the Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi in an Iranian prison in 2003.
“I couldn’t stop laughing,” says professor Saeed Rahnema, an Iran specialist at York University. “I mean, there are serious problems with Canada’s dealings with its indigenous peoples, but the Iranian regime is the very last government that could mention human rights. They couldn’t care less for human rights.”
Pointing fingers at Western countries to deflect pressure from abroad is common practice for Iranian diplomacy, and Canada, for years, has been at the forefront of the international push to improve Iran’s human rights record. The issue is at the top of a very short list of topics Ottawa will discuss with Tehran, which also includes Iran’s nuclear program and the episode resulting in Kazemi’s death. Canada-Iran relations have been severely limited for a long time, with Kazemi’s death sparking the downward spiral, says Reza Marashi, research director of the National Iranian American Council. But while Iran likes to amp up the rhetoric, it will also do what it can to avoid international isolation, says Marashi, including asking Canada to let it open consulates in cities like Vancouver. Ottawa has so far rejected the offer.