Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on 
Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Issue 7 - Evidence - Meeting of February 16, 2012


OTTAWA, Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade met this day at 10:30 a.m. to examine and report on Canadian foreign policy regarding Iran, its implications, and other related matters.

Senator A. Raynell Andreychuk (Chair) in the chair.

[English]

The Chair: Honourable senators, the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade is pursuing its examination on Canadian foreign policy regarding Iran, its implications and other related matters.

We are pleased this morning to have two professors who have come from some distance. Thank you for appearing in person today. We have Dr. Mojtaba Mahdavi, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Sciences at the University of Alberta; and Dr. James Devine, Assistant Professor at Mount Allison University.

We take the liberty here of shortening our introductions to give you more time. The members are aware of your backgrounds and your interests, so thank you for coming to add to our understanding about the present situation in Iran.

We generally like a short opening statement to allow later for an exchange between senators and witnesses.

Have you decided your order of speaking? If not, we will proceed as you have been presented to me.

Mojtaba Mahdavi, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Sciences, University of Alberta, as an individual: Madam Chair and honourable senators, thank you very much for inviting me here today to talk about Canada's foreign policy regarding Iran.

Canada is not a superpower. However, it can play a special role and make a positive difference in the Middle East, Iran included, if it follows its traditional principles. Canada has no colonial, imperial history in the Middle East. The perception that Canada respects multiculturalism, diversity, dialogue, constructive mediation, and diplomacy is great political capital for Canada. These are Canada's "soft powers" in international relations and Canada should not lose these invaluable sources of credibility.

I am not romanticizing Canada's foreign policy; I am simply suggesting that it is possible and desirable for Canada to pursue a principled, consistent and, at the same time, pragmatic foreign policy. The last thing Canada needs is an ideological foreign policy. In this context, I would like to briefly say a few words on four issues concerning Canada-Iran relations.

First, the ideological, rhetorical, and inflammatory statements by some Canadian authorities on Iran's nuclear issue are not helpful. We recently heard that the authorities argued that Iran is the greatest threat to world peace because it would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons, or that Iran was compared to Nazi Germany.

My argument is that the Iran regime's violation of human rights, not its nuclear policy, should be the first priority of Canada's foreign policy towards Iran. Ideological statements, as stated above, feed into war and serve the interests of hardliners who want war and are a clear deviation from Canada's principled position.

War is not a solution to improve Iran's human rights. It is a violation of human rights. War will put an end to the current pro-democracy movement in Iran. It will mobilize the masses to rally for the regime. It will create anger and hostility towards the West, including Canada. It probably will not stop Iran's nuclear program but just postpone it, it is very unlikely to bring democracy, and, most importantly, it is illegal and unethical.

Second, we need to contextualize Iran's nuclear policy. I will not talk about this now, but I will be happy to elaborate during questions and answers. The main point here is that there is something called the "Japanese option" in nuclear issues. That means not making bombs but having the knowledge and capability to do so. I think Canada is part of this "Japanese option," and my understanding is that Iran would most likely follow the same path. We can talk about this during the question and answer period.

The third quick point is economic sanctions, including so-called "smart and crippling sanctions." I think economic sanctions are not the solution to prevent war, unlike the conventional argument suggests. It is, in fact, the last stage before waging war, and the case of Iraq is a good example of it. Economic sanctions, I argue, are a lose-lose situation for the people of Iran and their quest for democracy and human rights. If the sanctions actually do not work, then their failure would justify war for those who advocate war and war is a losing situation for the people of Iran. If sanctions work, it is again a lose situation because they will have punished the victims — the people of Iran — more than the regime; they will have weakened the middle class, which is driving for democracy and the Green Movement; and they will have intensified corruption, smuggling, and the shadow economy, which benefit the elite and the crony clique; it brings more hatred towards the West, including Canada; and it is definitely immoral, unethical, and a violation of human rights, in my view.

Economic sanctions are a win-win situation for the hardliners and advocates of war inside Iran, the hardliners in United States, and those in Israel. If it works, it is a win situation for them. If it does not work, it is also a win situation because it becomes a pretext for war, weakening the nation and possibly disintegrating Iran's national territory by supporting separatist groups.

Canada does not want to be on that side; it does not belong to this category. I think Canada belongs to the side of the people who would lose as a result of economic sanctions.

Fourth, the solution is neither war nor economic sanctions. Focusing on nuclear issues should not be a priority policy. Human rights is the main issue, although I think even human rights advocacy should not be in the service of war or sanctions; it should simply serve the people and their movement. It should facilitate people's movements and, of course, the current democracy movement.

Let us not forget that Iran's Green Movement in 2009 started when there was no external threat, war, or current economic sanctions. People of Iran are capable of bringing change from within. Let us trust them and let us believe in them. They are already pressed between a rock and a hard place: It has been a authoritarian regime inside the country and there is the external threat of hardliners in Israel and the United States.

Canada does not belong to this camp. Canada can play a positive and constructive role by not echoing the voice of war at any cost. We should stand for our principles and support the people and their movement.

More specifically, Canada can initiate a series of diplomatic actions through the United Nations, for example, to facilitate free and fair elections in Iran, releasing political prisoners in Iran, putting an end to the house arrests of the public figures of the green movement, and supporting political refugees who come to Canada.

This is the Canada we know and appreciate. Thank you very much.

James Devine, Assistant Professor, Mount Allison University, as an individual: Madam Chair and members of the committee, I would like to thank you for inviting me here today.

In a period of time when tensions seem to be reaching a fever pitch, I would like to use my time before you to argue that Canada and the West need to remain committed to negotiations with Iran as a solution to their differences rather than using military force or coercion. I will base those recommendations on the four following points.

First of all, despite what we have heard in the media and way it has been represented, most recent American intelligence assessments suggest that there are opportunities and room for negotiations. As recently as January 31 of this year, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence in the United States, said, "We do not believe they have gone ahead with a decision to build a nuclear weapon." He has argued that, while Iran has built up the capacity to pursue this option, it has not committed itself to doing so yet.

Moreover, he goes on to argue that the decision in Iran is not based on technology at this point. The technology is available to Iran and they have made the necessary strides in the past few years. Rather, it is a question of political will.

On top of this, he argues that Iran has approached this issue not as an ideological issue but in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, suggesting that they are approaching this as a rational actor. This suggests that it is still possible to convince Iran that it is not in their best interests to develop a nuclear bomb.

The second point I would like to make is that coercive diplomacy alone has a very poor track record in foreign affairs. States very rarely respond to military threats, even when those threats are credible. We only have to look back to Iraq in 1991 and 2003 to see examples of this. Moreover, the literature on sanctions suggests that sanctions alone very rarely, if ever, achieve their goals, especially when those goals are to force a state to change its policies on a core national security issue.

In this context, over-relying on coercive diplomacy alone will not convince Iran not to build a bomb; it is likely to do the opposite and convince them that they need to build a bomb.

Third, there is little reason to believe at this point that the regime is in danger of collapsing, either because of sanctions or because of the demonstration effect of the Arab Spring.

There remains a great deal of political frustration in Iran because of the 2009 elections and for a number of other reasons. Nevertheless, the Green Movement has not been able to translate this into effective political force, and it is unlikely or, I believe, imprudent for the West to believe it can solve its problems with Iran by trying to promote a regime change from within. Nor is it prudent for us to sit back and hope or expect that our problems with Iran will be swept away by demonstrations as we saw in Egypt and Tunisia.

Fourth, the cost of the military option outweighs the benefits. Although Iran has been weakened in some respects by the Arab Spring, internal divisions, and by the sanctions, it still has the capacity to wreak havoc across the Middle East. This is a particularly sensitive time in Middle Eastern affairs. For the first time in my memory, we have some real hope of democratization taking place across the region. It is unclear what kind of effect another regional war will have on the fragile democratic transitions taking place in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.

Due to these reasons, I argue that it is important that we continue to use negotiations as our means of solving our difficulties with Iran. However, we have to be realistic about what we achieve. Given the degree of political fragmentation inside Tehran, it is unlikely we will achieve a grand bargain — something that will take care of the West's problems and complaints with Iran. Rather, we have to be more measured with our expectations. It is even unlikely that the West will get Iran to give up on the enrichment process. This is something that has too much support within the country for any government or political leaders inside Tehran to turn their backs on.

Hopefully, however, if we continue to negotiate, we will be able to convince Iran that it does not need to proceed with weaponization and it does not need to take the final steps.

The Chair: Thank you. I do have a list of senators wishing to put forward questions. We will begin.

Senator Finley: That was a very interesting and comprehensive summary. It leaves me in a quandary because I am not quite sure where to start.

People have compared the sanctions, for example, to South Africa. I do not think this is the same situation at all as South Africa. As I see it, we have two fundamental things here: One is the possible weaponization of Iran, and the second — and one that I think is of grave concern to many people in the Senate — is the absolute human rights abuse and the deprivation of livelihood and freedom.

You seem to be saying, if I listen to both of you — and I invite you to answer this — it seems to be like a quandary wrapped up in an enigma wrapped up in something else. On the one hand, we are saying not to go the military route because that will provoke something that no one can benefit from. On the other hand, we are saying to not try to create a power change from within the country. Apply sanctions by all means. However, I read today that Iran is threatening to cut the oil off from France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Greece, and Portugal, and I wonder how long these states would hold sanctions with no oil.

All the weapons that I see in our arsenal, diplomatic or otherwise, you are taking them away; you are saying they will not work. That is the impression that I got. You keep turning up at the table but there will never be a grand bargain.

What is the message you are trying to send to the Senate? What should our recommendation be? Is it to do nothing, in effect? Should we play as a bystander broker?

I am having a problem. You say "Do not go after the weapons, do not go after them internally and do not sabre rattle. We have the 'Japanese option,' but God knows how long that could take. Do not get rhetorical about nuclear use or anything else." What would you have us do, if I may ask?

Mr. Devine: The points you raise are all valid.

There are a couple of things we can do. I am not advocating we sit back and do nothing. I think that would be a very large mistake.

Any effective diplomacy will involve some combination of not just carrots but also sticks.

We have to do a few things, though. First, we have to be willing to reciprocate. Iran has made gestures at various points in time. They are often obtuse and buried in rhetoric, but they have made gestures towards not just Canada but the West, in general. We need to be willing to take them up on their offers. So far the reply has been, "We do not believe they are negotiating in good faith and they are only playing for time," and we have ignored opportunities. We have to take the opportunities where we can and see what kind of progress we can make with them.

Second, we do not necessarily need to stop sabre rattling or stop using bellicose rhetoric, but to be more careful with them. We have to ensure the message we are sending to Iran is one that is being understood. In Iran, the perception of the West is not that we are trying to get them to give up on their nuclear weapons or that we want to have them adjust their behaviour. The message is we want regime change. As long as we are saying Iran is the biggest threat in the world and as long as we are clumping all of our complaints about Iran together and making it look like we have a problem with the entire regime and are not willing to tolerate them, then the Iranians will approach this as an existential threat and, rather than negotiate, they will dig in harder.

Senator Finley: Canada took what I call a "tickle me to death" approach as opposed to bludgeoning. Can you perhaps tell me whether you think Iran might be prepared for suggestions? You say they have made suggestions. What I perceive to be one of the most egregious parts of the Iranian government at the moment is that it is not just internal human rights and abuse but they have actually exported this to kill people — terrorists, however you want to call them — in other parts of the world. They are exporting this internal terror externally and are focusing on very particular targets. I think it would not be unreasonable to say that Israel is one of those targets.

Can you square that circle for me where, on the one hand, you say the Iranians are sending a message that says, "Come and negotiate and tickle us" and on the other hand, they are saying, "By the way, if you do not mind, we will just brutalize a few people off our shores. We will blow them up, throw grenades at them, and do whatever we will do." How do you square that circle? I do not understand.

Mr. Mahdavi: Negotiation with the Iranian regime is one thing where I think the situation has changed to some extent after the 2009 presidential election, because of the crisis of legitimacy in Iran. After 2009, Iranian politics is quite something else compared to Iran before 2009 presidential elections. That is one thing.

I wish there was a chance for a comprehensive, grand bargaining negotiation, which was actually the offer during presidency of Mohammed Khatami when he and President George Bush were in power. We can imagine if, at the time, President Obama was in office. Things might have been in a different situation.

Right now, negotiations are something that I guess Mr. Devine will talk about. On the other hand, the focus of my brief talk was: Let us be on the side of the people. "People" means Iran's Green Movement and Iran's pro-democracy movement. My simple argument was that war and economic sanctions are not productive. They are actually against the issue. It is very against human rights, democracy, and it basically weakens the people.

I am not suggesting that we should not do anything. Inaction is not an option. I suggested a few things that Canada can do, through the United Nations organization, like facilitating free and fair elections in Iran, putting pressure on Iran to release political prisoners, putting an end to the house arrests of public figures of Iran's Green Movement. These are valid things and almost all the people actually support this kind of thing.

On the question of terror, unfortunately, we heard here and there — at least Iran has suggested it and recently last week, some U.S. officials suggested it — that Israel was behind the assassination of the Iranian scientists. These are the kinds of threats we can see. Obviously, there is a kind of cold war at this point between Israel and Iran through different measures.

My simple point is that we need to understand the situation in a very broad context, seeing both sides of the argument, and definitely support the movement, which is a mature movement in Iran. Canada can do a lot other than via war or economic sanctions.

Mr. Devine: In regard to your questions about the use of subversion and exporting the revolution, I think it is important that we understand where that fits into Iranian politics and their strategy. Rather than some ideological, messianic mission, Iran has used these tactics instrumentally and strategically. They have tried to create for themselves an asymmetric deterrent capacity; i.e., while they lack nuclear weapons and the conventional military capacity to threaten retribution, they have built up the capacity to strike back at the West through creating instability in the region.

This is done perhaps not as carefully as it should be, but it is done with a certain logic to it. I would argue that the Iranians are playing the same game we are playing as we get closer to the end of the end game of the nuclear issue: We put pressure on them to try to get them to negotiate on our terms; they try to put pressure on us to show that they will not be intimidated and to try to get the negotiations to be more on their terms.

This is a strategic type of engagement rather than something that is ideological, and it has to be dealt with as such.

Senator Finley: I think this is a paradox in actual practicality. I will wait for the second round.

[Translation]

Senator Fortin-Duplessis: Professors, thank you for having come to meet with us, and for your interesting briefs.

My question is addressed to Professor Devine. Professor, in one of your comments, you said that we cannot know what the consequences of war in that region will be. Some rather strange things are happening. Mr. Dmitri Rogozine, the Deputy Prime Minister and special representative of the Russian President for cooperation with NATO, regarding antimissile defence, said that if something happened to Iran, if it were involved in hostilities, "this would be a direct threat to our security." He said that Iran had the right to live in security, and so on. That means that they might be willing to go to war with Iran if things were to degenerate to that point.

You mentioned that you specialize in studying that region, and you know a great deal on everything that is happening over there. Can you tell us more about the role and influence Iran has in that region? What are the alliances between Iran and its neighbours? What alliances has Iran concluded with non-state groups of militants in the region?

I will have a question for Mr. Mahdavi during the second round.

[English]

Mr. Devine: Iran's influence has waxed and waned in the region over the years. As little as a few years ago, Iran seemed to be on the rise in terms of its soft power in the region, largely as a result of the 2006 war in Lebanon. Iran was seen as one of the few states that was standing up to the West and the Israelis.

Their influence in terms of soft power has declined since the Arab Spring, where the weight of public opinion now is towards democratization and human rights, and Iran is not being perceived as being supportive of that. In that respect, Iran has lost a great deal of its soft power.

If it were to be attacked by the United States or Israel — especially by Israel — that would reverse the process to a large extent. Iran would go from being perceived as a state that was bullying its own people to a state as being victimized once again by the West and as a victim of Israeli violence.

Iran's relationships with the non-state actors in the region around it are very complex. As we know, it has relationships with Hezbollah. It has a great deal of influence inside of Iraq through the Shiite community, as well as in the north — in the Kurdish regions, Iran is a major player within Kurdish politics through the use of money and infiltration through its own agents.

The same could largely be said about Afghanistan. Iran in the Persian Gulf has had a long history of connections with Shia opposition groups. This point is particularly important. Iran used to be closely connected to Hezbollah — Al-Hejaz, which was the Saudi version of Hezbollah. When they were able to reach some sort of political accommodation with the Saudis in the late 1990s, Iran was willing to break off that relationship and stop supporting those groups and stay out of, for the most part, Saudi politics. That seems to be deteriorating again, but this is largely contingent behaviour; it is not an ideological crusade; they use these groups instrumentally. When they are under pressure they strike out, but there has been evidence that Iran can be a more responsible actor in the region when it does not feel as threatened.

[Translation]

Senator Fortin-Duplessis: Since the European Union supports these sanctions, do they have allies within the countries of the European Union, or are they really isolated, with the groups you have just described?

[English]

Mr. Devine: I am sorry, Iran you mean being isolated?

Senator Nolin: Did they have allies in the EU?

Mr. Devine: At this point, their relationship with the EU is at an all-time low. They have been able to maintain relationships with some of the European states, particularly Germany, but as we get closer to the end of this process of negotiations and diplomacy over the nuclear issue, that has broken down. It has broken down because of human rights abuses and a variety of other things. Iran right now is probably the most isolated it has been since the 1980s.

Senator Downe: Could Professor Devine elaborate on his comments about sanctions rarely working? I have been reading about the sanctions imposed already and it appears that countries like Brazil and Turkey are simply not participating and are continuing to trade at full volume.

In your research and experience, could you expand on how sanctions actually do not achieve the objective they are implemented for?

Mr. Devine: Certainly. There are numerous problems with sanctions. The first problem is, as you have observed, that it is almost impossible to lock a country into an airtight system of sanctions. There are always states that will break sanctions for economic and political reasons. Perhaps the most draconian and powerful sanctions regime we saw were the sanctions levied against Iraq after the Kuwait crisis, and even in that case Iraq was able to find ways to wiggle out of the sanctions regime, sell oil, get money into the country and keep the regime afloat.

The second problem with sanctions is that the real pain of sanctions is rarely felt by the government. Instead of the government feeling the pinch, it passes it on to the citizens. Unless the general population has a mechanism of overthrowing the government, which was not the case in Iraq and which I do not believe is the case in Iran, all sanctions do is punish the average citizen.

Senator Downe: What does the international community do, if anything, about countries that are violating the sanctions and not participating? I mentioned Brazil and Turkey. I understand Germany, which apparently has agreed verbally to them, is continuing to do massive amounts of trade. Are there any sanctions against the countries not participating in the sanctions?

Mr. Devine: Depending on the case, that may be possible, but I cannot see us finding any way to sanction a country like Germany. We could complain about them diplomatically and in public, but that is unlikely to change their policies. Brazil is in the same situation. Turkey now is becoming an increasingly important regional player in the Middle East. They, too, will not be a country we can sanction or punish to shape their policies.

Senator Johnson: I want to talk a bit about the internal and regional developments. As we all know, there are elections in the next two years. They obviously want to avoid the disputes and problems they had in 2009. Could you comment on what areas of concern you have regarding Iran's political and parliamentary systems, how representative they are, which groups have particular influence and which groups are alienated?

Mr. Mahdavi: I do not think there will be any chance for the reformists to participate in the elections, not only in the presidential election but also in the next two weeks the parliamentary elections. There will be competition in the region within the so-called right wing Principlist followers of Mr. Ahmadinejad, on the one hand, and the traditional conservatives on the other hand, but basically division within the conservatives in the country.

That would be the main competition, if we can actually call it competition.

As you might know, there is tension between President Ahmadinejad at this point and the leader. I guess the honeymoon is over, to some extent. The leader is not quite happy with President Ahmadinejad and, as you know, President Ahmadinejad wants to nominate the people around him for the following presidential election.

The real tension would be between different branches of the conservatives, President Ahmadinejad and some of his followers, and centre and traditional right of conservatives and the leader. I do not think we can see any real competition going on in the following elections, and definitely the reformists will be out.

Senator Johnson: How will the elections impact the political situation in Iran now, given what is happening and the way things have heated up to the point where yesterday they were on worldwide television showing their latest rods for nuclear reactors? Are all the people that are running for election on the same page except for the democratic movement, which is always being quashed?

Mr. Mahdavi: My understanding is that after the 2009 presidential election, not many people are actually excited about elections because they do not trust the system. They think that the political system does not actually keep their word.

However, we know that the regime actually needs elections, basically to legitimize its authority. They will go for an election but I do not think we will see a huge participation, but many things can happen and we will have to see what will happen.

Senator Johnson: How will the democratic aspect do in this campaign? You cannot say at this point the movement. Would they support any of the parties that are running, the leadership, or are they going to be protesting again?

Mr. Mahdavi: The two main figures of the green movement, Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karroubi are in house arrest. The former president Khatami and the followers of the reformists did not boycott the election, but they say they are not going to actually participate in the election.

There are, of course, some really marginal figures among the reformist who will participate in the parliamentary election, but my understanding is that the main body of the reformist and pro-democracy movement will not participate in the election.

Senator Johnson: Are there any women running in any leadership roles or secondary leadership roles?

Mr. Mahdavi: Yes. There have been in the Parliament in the past, and even right now, followers of the conservatives, yes.

Senator Nolin: I have a follow-up with a question asked by Senator Finley. Canada is trying to find a solution through the legislative process for the exportation of terrorism. Let me explain. I am asking you the question because last night we heard one of your colleagues, Professor Braun, from the University of Toronto, mentioning Bill C-10, a bill we have before us now. I do not know whether you are familiar with that piece of legislation.

It is an omnibus crime bill, and one of the elements of the bill is trying to amend the State Immunity Act to permit a victim of terrorism to sue the perpetrators and their supporters. Basically, they are saying if you want to sue Iran, you will be able to do it. The bill will lift the immunity, and there will be a list of various countries and supporters.

Do you have any thoughts on that recommendation?

Mr. Devine: Obviously, there needs to be recourse for people who have been the victims of terrorism. I am not sure that this will be an effective one. I am not sure the mechanisms are in place where that can be enforced, and, if anything, the roots of state-sponsored terrorism are political rather than ideological. We need a political solution to our relationships with these regimes. If we are to solve things, that is how we will have to do it, not necessarily through legal legislation.

Senator Nolin: Professor Mahdavi, you were talking about the effectiveness of negotiation: let us try and let us be open for negotiation. You both mentioned that. If we are to adopt such an amendment, will we jeopardize the slim possibility of having fruitful negotiations if we lift the immunity of Iran in Canada?

Mr. Mahdavi: Maybe if we could have critical, serious engagement and then through the negotiation, we can say exactly what we expect and listen to what they say. I think, yes, there is a chance for that.

Senator Nolin: I have a last question that deals with the understanding by the Government of Canada of the culture in Iran. I am asking you the question because at the last Defence Committee meeting we heard from General Bouchard. As you know, he was the head of the NATO effort in Libya. We had some Arab states involved because of the coalition, and some of the effort used by General Bouchard was to try to understand the culture of the Libyans. He used many Arab state interventions to capture the culture of Libya.

Should the Government of Canada, having in mind a similar intent of trying to understand what is happening in Iran, use individuals like you and the Iranian community living in Canada, to augment their proper understanding of the real nature of the sometimes obscure culture of Iran?

Mr. Mahdavi: I think as long as this kind of dialogue or conversation is not an introduction and pretext for war or intervention, it is okay to me. As I clearly mentioned, I do not think it is moral or practically productive to wage war or intervention.

On the question of culture, there are different layers of culture. I do not think we can actually talk about one particular abstract form of Iranian culture. There are different forms of culture, for example, the regime's culture, middle class culture and upper class culture, but overall, I can say you can find a strong sense of nationalism in Iran because of its proud history and pride, things they really feel. That is why any government considering military intervention should simply consider it as a kind of drive for backlash against intervention.

On the other hand, Iranian culture, if you can talk about such things in a broad sense, is not interventionist, unlike what we hear in the rhetoric of some of the political elites. It is inclusive and friendly, and in the last 200 years, Iran never invaded a country, so it is inclusive, friendly and accommodating, if you can call it that. I simply suggest that we should put the concept of culture in a specific context to talk about it.

Mr. Devine: We have to be a little careful when we try to engage communities in the diaspora. They are often politicized, so we have to go into the process having that in mind. Having said that, I think it is a very good idea to improve our understanding of Iranian culture and Iranian civilization because as we begin to know more about Iran, we will start to understand their perceptions of the West, their concerns about the West and see them more in a human light as opposed to the images we see in the media of people chanting, "Death to America."

The Chair: Sanctions are a blunt instrument, as we have been told. They are difficult to impose for internal and external reasons. Often, they take a long time to take hold. It is true, even in the South African situation, that they are a blunt instrument and hurt perhaps the most vulnerable, but it is a value judgment that one must make that, in the end, it is for a common good.

Having said all that, I do not think anyone reaches for sanctions as the first alternative in diplomacy or, in fact, in diplomacy. It is when you have exhausted all of your other possibilities that you reach for sanctions, and perhaps the only alternative after that is a military one.

Mr. Mahdavi, you say we should concentrate on human rights. I think the international community has concentrated on human rights. It has been thwarted in every UN situation, bilaterally, regionally, et cetera. How can we do more in the human rights area than the denunciations, the ability to try to use any instrument internationally and otherwise that we have in the United Nations and others for human rights advancement? It is easy to say we should concentrate on human rights, but what do you want us to do? If you do not want us to use sanctions and you do not want the military options — I think we are in agreement on that — then what is it?

I say that because you say they will come to the table. Well, it appears that the Americans do not think they will come to the table; the Canadians seem to think that; the Europeans seem to think that; and the Arab states are increasingly beginning to think that. Where is this indication that they will come to the table? They say they are ready to negotiate, but there has not been, in the eyes of anyone, evidence. The same is true for the International Atomic Energy Agency. They say they will be open, but you have to read the last report to question that.

What tool do you want us to recommend that has not already been tried and has failed? The last one is the sanctions which we are trying and seems to be taking hold, even with the Germans, I would say.

I appreciate that was a little argumentative, but I want a more specific answer to deal with it.

Mr. Mahdavi: It is a difficult question, and I understand it.

Actually, I think the focus of the international community has been very much on the nuclear issue and to a lesser extent on human rights. Look at almost all agendas on Iran; they are basically about the nuclear issue. I cannot really remember a good international kind of negotiation which suggests that the first and foremost agenda is putting pressure on Iran to have free and fair elections and the issue of human rights. We always talk about the nuclear issue and Iran as a threat to international peace and security, and that is exactly what some elements of the Iranian government want, because they do not want to be challenged on the issue of human rights because it is easier to be challenged on the nuclear issue than on human rights. By this, we are playing on the fields of Iran authorities or the regime. I do not think it is constructive or that it actually works.

Quite honestly, unfortunately, economic sanctions are the last stage for waging war, and I do not really see a connection between actually imposing economic sanctions and a war to improve human rights. If we suggest that human rights and democracy for the people, the democratic movement, is the first and foremost concern of Canada and the international community, I do not really see a connection with how we can improve human rights and democracy with war and economic sanctions.

As I mentioned, the Iranian people showed that they are capable of actually initiating demonstration and opposition in 2009 in the absence of external threat, in the absence of war and in the absence of economic sanctions.

My peculiar answer to your difficult and complex question is to let us clearly talk about human rights issues and let us actually initiate a series of diplomatic actions through the UN and United Nations organizations to put pressure on the issue of human rights and suggest that well, with such-and-such a condition, we really want to see a deadline for free and fair elections and this kind of stuff. That is how I can actually see the issue.

Ideally speaking, I wish there was a chance, an opportunity, before 2009 for a really grand bargaining. That was the opportunity that was missed by both Iranian authorities and, of course, Western countries.

The Chair: I appreciate your desire and wish, and I share it. The problem is that every lever and tool was used in the United Nations Human Rights Council. Iran has not been ignored by the international community. It has been thwarted, and perhaps the only thing that has changed, and would you not agree with me, is that prior to the Arab Spring, or whatever you want to call it now, there was an initiation to thwart any looking at Iran or other countries in the area. They simply would not allow the resolutions through. With the change in Tunisia, perhaps in Egypt, perhaps in Syria, this might give the international community more levers within the UN system, but what would be the response of Russia and China?

Mr. Mahdavi: Obviously these guys are not great advocates of human rights, definitely. We know that, and we just recently saw Russia and China's veto in the case of Syria. Of course, we had the veto of the United States in the case of the violation of human rights in Palestine-Israel in the past six decades or so. This shows inconsistency in international politics and the issue of double standards, and people of the regions are smart enough to understand this kind of lack of consistency. I share your concern, and I know it is very difficult, but I cannot really see the connection of how we can actually improve human rights and democracy with war and economic sanctions. That is my puzzle, and I know this is very difficult.

The Chair: It is a conundrum.

Senator De Bané: Pursuant to the question of my colleague, Senator Nolin, about culture, you said we have to differentiate between the different groups. Several years ago, I attended a conference in Ottawa by a Canadian ambassador to Iran who had just retired after his last posting. The thing that is vivid in my memory that he told us during his lecture is that what was unique with this government is that they thrive on confrontation. They thrive on it. He said he had never seen that in another country.

We asked him to give us an example. He said, "Suppose that I go to see their ministry of foreign affairs to ask something on behalf of the Canadian government, and what they offer me is something that is really unacceptable." I say, "No, that is not satisfactory." He said then their reaction is to make a second offer but less than the first one. He said this is it. They thrive on confrontation.

Mr. Devine and Mr. Mahdavi, do you have agree that the government of Iran, since they have been in power, thrives on confrontation? That is the testimony of a Canadian ambassador who has just retired, and he said he has never seen that anywhere.

Mr. Devine: In certain respects, I would agree with you and the ambassador. Confrontation and friction with the West has been something that the regime has definitely used to legitimize its role. The more confrontation there is, they more they have been able to stand up to the people who support them and say, "Look, we are protecting you from Western imperialism," and this plays into the hands of many people in the regime.

There have been changes in time to the degree that this is the case. I have had the opportunity to speak to people who were in power in Iran when Mohammad Khatami was president, and their tone towards negotiations and relations with the West was not perfect from the Western perspective but much more conciliatory. I have had the opportunity to spend a bit of time in Iran since President Ahmadinejad has been in power and seen officials, and their tone is different — far more confrontational and bellicose.

Again, this is part of the way they play to their domestic audiences and part of the way they perceive the West. The more hard-line elements within the regime perceive the West to be inherently confrontational toward them as well. They see everything that we do and say to them from that perspective, and they react accordingly. This is part of the dynamic between the West and Iran, but it is not something that is completely locked in place and it cannot be dealt with.

Mr. Mahdavi: Under President Mohammad Khatami, the United Nations' organization actually called the year 2001 as the year of dialogue amongst civilizations, and that was at the initiation of President Mohammad Khatami, contrary to the clash of civilizations put forward by others.

At the same time, the current authorities use the idea and the concept of the West to legitimize themselves. Basically, they need an enemy, and this is what we saw under President George W. Bush in the United States of America. You are right, but Iran is not unique in the whole world. We can have similar cases.

Senator D. Smith: With regard to the election that will be coming up and whether there is any bona fide aspect to it by our standards, I want to get into this a little bit, because I find it frustrating when you talk to the expatriate Iranian community in Europe and North America. It is pretty large. I think there are 500,000 in the Los Angeles area alone. It is huge. Any of the political groups that they would be sympathetic to who are championing the cause of both human rights and bona fide free elections and democracy will not be on the ballot because they have to be approved by that counsel that is made up of appointees by the Ayatollah, and it will not happen.

Every year, in Paris, there is this annual conference that ends up with a big rally, and I have been a couple of times and seen as many as 70,000 people there, primarily expatriate Iranians, but a lot of British MPs and lords and Germans and French. Last year, there were a few U.S. Congresspersons there. That is coordinated by the national council of resistance, but the biggest group in it is the PMOI, and 15 years ago they got put on this terrorist list. I heard the story that that is when Bill Clinton was trying to get a meaningful dialogue going, and there was a gesture and maybe stuff that had happened 10 or 15 years earlier, some of it Camp Ashraf related, and now 25 years later, they were put on the list.

In the U.K., there were three cases where the judgments were pretty strong, "Take them off the list," and they took them off the list. In the European Council, there were four cases, and all of them said, "Take them off the list."

Yesterday, after our meeting ended, I spoke with Professor Aurel Braun on this point, just one on one, and I said I find it so frustrating that the groups out there — I have been to a couple of those rallies, advocating human rights and democracy — are on this terrorist list. Is there any bona fide rational reason for so many years later? I do not think there is any hard evidence that warrants this.

Are you familiar with this situation and what are your comments? After the States did it, some of the Western countries, including Canada, did it, and the Europeans and the Brits have dealt with it but we have not. I think we need to, and I welcome your views on this.

Mr. Mahdavi: MKO People's Mujahideen Organization is an old organization, based back to the Shah regime in the 1960s. They were involved in political violence and terror, I guess assassination of the Shah officials, and after the revolution they were involved in actual terror activities. Recently, we heard, according to some American officials, that they were actually involved in the assassination of Iran's nuclear scientists with the help of Mossad of Israel, which is not confirmed. They denied that. They said these are simply allegations. There is a history of terrorism for those guys and, of course, they simply denied this and they suggested they have changed —

Senator D. Smith: Allegations and history are not the same thing.

Mr. Mahdavi: There is, of course, evidence which suggests they were involved in actual terrorist activities in the past. They suggested that they changed their policy since 2003 when the United States came to Iraq, and they became a more political group.

Now, we know the situation in Camp Ashraf, which is under the pressure of the Iranian authority and the Iraqi government, and they had to leave the camp and go to the liberty camp, and they have a choice to come to the European countries, if they wish to.

Mujahideen's case is very complex and, as far as I understand internal politics of Iran, because they cooperated with Saddam's regime against Iran during the Iraq-Iran war —

Senator D. Smith: So did the Americans.

Mr. Mahdavi: Yes, but they are Iranians, of course — they are not very popular in Iran. However, this does not suggest that we should not basically support or protect their rights. They are like all human beings. They deserve their rights, and we should support their rights.

Senator D. Smith: One of the ironies is that the chair of the national council, which is not listed, is also the leader of the PMOI, and it was her husband was before her, and he is not around because he has to be in hiding because the assumption is that he is going to be —

The Chair: I think you are running into the issue of becoming a witness, so could I get you back to —

Senator D. Smith: I will drop it.

The Chair: Thank you. Mr. Devine wanted to add to your question.

Mr. Devine: The question of allegations and history is a very complicated in these cases, because there very rarely is a smoking gun, and the same thing can be said for the Iranian case. There are a lot of allegations, not always easy to prove. Does that mean Iran has not been associated with these acts? No, it does not. Even when we do not have the smoking gun, we can make educated judgments that Iran has been involved in subversion in different parts of the world.

The same thing goes for the PMOI. The consensus in the literature I have seen and from the people I have spoken to is that they have been involved in acts of terrorism in the past. They may have changed; and they may not. It is an open question, but their history is very problematic.

Senator D. Smith: That is not what the courts concluded.

[Translation]

Senator Robichaud: Witnesses have told us that within Iran, and in institutions controlled by Iran, certain power struggles are taking place for the purpose of gaining more influence and control over the population. These struggles concern wealth sharing, and there is corruption.

Will the upcoming elections shed some light on the differences underlying these power struggles and concerning the sharing of wealth? Could this weaken the power of the government over the Iranian population?

[English]

Mr. Devine: The elections that are coming up, I think, will not be important in terms of dealing with the broader population and their democratic grievances. However, as you are suggesting, it will be very important in terms of the power struggle going on within the government itself right now.

Whether this will weaken the government or not in the long run is hard to say, but I would suggest that since the revolution has taken place in 1979, we have frequently looked at the internal infighting within the regime and thought that this was going to bring down the government. We thought that during the 1980s, we thought that when Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989 and a new leader was chosen, and we thought again when Mohammad Khatami took power that these internal divisions were going to pull the regime apart, and it has not happened. The regime, for a variety of reasons, has proven to be very resilient. It may come to pass that eventually these internal fissures will bring the regime down, but in my opinion there is no sign of that happening in the immediate future.

Mr. Mahdavi: Despite all the rhetoric of Mr. Ahamadinajad's government for having a clean government, the reformists in Iran suggest that the current government in post-revolutionary Iran is the most corrupt government in Iran. There is actually a fight within the conservative right, traditional right, and some MPs in the Parliament, on the one hand, who are against Ahmadinejad and the followers of Mr. Ahmadinejad, already blaming each other for corruption. There is a big chance that actually Mr. Ahmadinejad will be invited to the Parliament to answer the questions of the MPs. There is actually a big fight, and the issue of corruption is the big issue these days, but I do not think it will have a big impact in terms of the collapse of the whole regime.

Senator Finley: I have a quick question perhaps in the realm of fantasy as opposed to reality. I am not a diplomat but a businessman by training, but normally, in most walks of life, when impasse occurs, and clearly, there is a large element of impasse here, there is some form of back doors opened up, or I think the phrase in perhaps diplomatic terms is shuttle diplomacy of some kind of underground pipeline between the two groups. Is such a thing happening at the moment or is there a potential for such an event to happen? What kind of back door shuttle would probably work best in this situation?

Mr. Devine: Despite the official position that the Iranian government and the American government will not talk to each other, which has now changed and there are face-to-face negotiations, there has been such back door contact between the two countries dating back to the 1980s. If there will be any resolution or any way of managing this impasse, I think that will be probably the way it will happen. There is too much domestic politics in both the U.S. and Iran for anything to be solved in public, because too much political capital will be lost by making any concessions.

Having said that, the same problem seems to emerge in back door or track two diplomacy as does in public diplomacy. The two sides fundamentally distrust each other. They interpret every gesture as either a sign of hostility or some sort of trick. It is difficult to get past that. Going back to 1989 when the first real overtures seemed to be taking place between the two sides to deal with their problems, there is a history of failed expectations, from the Kuwait crisis in 1991 even to the Afghan situation in 2001. I spoke to one diplomat at that time when the Afghan conflict was going on and asked, "Is there a chance we can get somewhere out of this?" "His response was, "It is the Americans. They need us now, so they are being nice. The moment they do not need us again, they will go back to the way they were. It is exactly like Kuwait. They wanted our help with Saddam Hussein in 1991. As soon as they did not need us again, it was back to the same old situation."

That is not to say is the Americans' fault. I am not saying that at all, but that is how Iran perceives it, and this level of mistrust is prevalent right through the regime, and it will be very difficult to get around it, even in back door diplomacy.

Senator Finley: There are two primary parties here, Iran and the United States, evidently. My question was more addressed at whether there is a third party, and I do not mean the United Nations, that could come to play in this. Is there somebody that both the Iranians and the Americans might consider as an honest broker?

Mr. Devine: It has been suggested in the past that Canada might play such a role. I would like to think that is possible, but I am skeptical of it. Ultimately, third parties would not be trusted by either side to be able to deliver. If there was a third party, the Americans would not trust it to be able to deliver on Iranian promises, and the Iranians would not trust the third party to deliver on American promises. I think this is something they will have to deal with themselves directly.

Mr. Mahdavi: This has been experienced in the past when the Iranians and European countries negotiated, and it went nowhere.

The fundamental issue is that there is a wall of distrust or mistrust. For Ayatollah Khamenei, the leadership, if I can simplify, his argument, is this: "We do not really trust the United States of America because of this. If you are serious about resolving the tension between Iran and the United States of America, why do you not lift the sanctions? When you were actually talking to us and we have negotiations, why are you at the same time supporting separatist movements and terrorists groups at the same time?" For the leadership of Iran, this is a big concern, and they think that if they say actually yes to anything the United States wants, they have to actually say they have to concede every single point. If they submit their lot to the nuclear issue, they have to resolve the issue of human rights. Basically, mistrust is the main point at this point.

[Translation]

Senator Fortin-Duplessis: My question is for Professor Mahdavi. You mentioned that it was important to encourage the opposition parties, and that we must do everything in our power to see to it that human rights are respected. You also feel that the sanctions are not effective.

I want to share this fact with you: people were asked to demonstrate a few days ago in Iran. But even though their discontent is palpable, the mobilization was modest.

I will explain what I mean: the Iranian authorities knew about the call to demonstrate, which was mostly conveyed through the Internet. They took control of the situation. Last week, millions of Iranians could not access their Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail, and social networks like Facebook and Twitter were also blocked. So these preventive measures were added to recent restrictions imposed on virtual exchanges, such as the creation in 2011 of a super-police force to control cybercrime.

And to pull the rug out from under the most rash protestors, the governor of the province of Tehran, Morteza Tamaddon, gave a warning this Sunday that he would take any security measures necessary against the demonstration he described as a "publicity coup" on the part of those who oppose the Islamic Republic.

However, if you take a look at the situation, you see that there is indeed discontent in the population. And the economic difficulties are no doubt contributing to this. Some Iranians are not supportive, that much is clear.

Do you think that the opposition may have been weakened by the fact that they could not attend the demonstration that had been called for on the Internet? Or do you think that on the contrary, the ongoing repression may have strengthened the opposition?

Finally — you mentioned that it was very important to help the opposition parties — how can we help them?

[English]

Mr. Mahdavi: How we can assist the opposition group is a very important question. The first thing is that we do not want to assist them financially, like a dollar kind of democracy. We do not want to do this because it simply challenges their credibility. They do not want to be considered as the puppet of foreigners because of democracy promotion. Democracy movement is something authentic and grassroots.

Certainly, they appreciate support in terms of basically supporting that political prisoners should be released. Their rights should be protected. If there is any chance the Government of Canada can do some facilitating in terms of free access to the Internet, blocking the censorship, or more facility in terms of media and communication, that would be a help. The opposition would very much appreciate it.

My understanding is that since the democracy movement is deeply rooted in the civil society, this kind of suppression has a very short impact for a short period of time, but when there is a chance or opportunity for the whole society, it will re-emerge immediately. That is my understanding.

The Chair: Mr. Mahdavi and Mr. Devine, thank you for coming. We have covered areas more extensively than we have to this point. We appreciate your perspectives on a very difficult situation and the Canadian perspective.

Mr. Mahdavi: Thank you very much for the opportunity.

Mr. Devine: Thank you.

(The committee adjourned.)