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