Bill S-219 Non-Nuclear Sanctions against Iran Bill

Third reading — Debate continued

October 5, 2017

The Honourable Senator Yuen Pau Woo :

Honourable senators, while we recessed over the summer, the world became a more dangerous place.

The testing of long-range missiles by North Korea and that regime’s new-found ability to place nuclear warheads on those missiles has created a direct threat to  the  mainland  of the  United States. It has precipitated a furious response from President Trump, including the threat  of  a  preemptive  attack  on the DPRK, which would  have devastating consequences  not only  for North Korea but for the entire northeast Asian region, especially South  Korea.

We can only hope that tighter coordinated sanctions on Pyongyang will bring the regime to the diplomatic table for talks on reducing tensions, enhancing regional security and, above all, managing the new reality of a rogue state that has gone nuclear. If and when such talks take place, Pyongyang will need assurance that any deal it strikes with the U.S. and others will be honoured, and that any relaxation of the tough economic sanctions faced by North Korea will not be rescinded by ideology or caprice.

Which brings me to the subject of my speech this afternoon, Bill S-219, Non-Nuclear Sanctions Against Iran. At the heart of Bill S-219 is the implicit rejection of the 2015 United Nations P5+1 deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA. In exchange for the lifting of tough economic sanctions, Iran agreed to halt its nuclear weapons program. To ensure that Iran is in compliance with the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, has been tasked with verifying Tehran’s adherence to the provisions of the JCPOA. President Trump does not like the JCPOA and he is looking for ways to get out of the agreement. With help from a Republican House and Senate, he has already brought into law a bill that is similar to our Bill S-219, entitled Countering America’s Adversaries Through  Sanctions  Act.  His next target is the JCPOA itself. In spite of unequivocal statements from the IAEA that Iran is complying with the agreement, Washington seems hell-bent on finding a reason to withdraw from the agreement. The U.S. is alone among the P5+1 signatories in its belief that Iran is in violation of the JCPOA and that the agreement should be abrogated. Richard Nephew, former Principal Deputy Coordinator for Sanctions Policy at the Department of State, and current Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University, has said:

It seems there is a faction within the administration that is trying to lay the basis for getting out [of the agreement] on the basis of cooked books.

Colleagues, we all remember how badly ‘‘cooked books’’ turned out in the lead-up to the second Gulf War, when the U.S. and British governments were hell-bent on finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Now, the difference between Iran and North Korea is that the former is a near-nuclear state, whereas the latter has already lost its innocence. Do you think there is any chance of North Korea agreeing to some form of denuclearization if it cannot count on

the other side to abide by an agreement? What lesson do you think Pyongyang is taking from legislation such as Bill S-219 that seeks to ratchet up sanctions in spite of an agreement to limit their application in exchange for important concessions on matters of national security?

I have no doubt that Bill S-219 was created out of sincere intentions to curb state-sponsored terrorism, incitement to hatred, and human rights violations on the part of the Iranian regime.

However, it contains a number of fundamental flaws, and if it is enacted, would not only fail in its intended objectives, but would also damage Canada’s efforts to foster positive change in Iran through a restoration of diplomatic ties with Tehran.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is undoubtedly engaged in state-sponsored terrorism, gross human rights violations and incitement to hatred. Executions, incarceration of human rights advocates, media censorship, and support for groups such as Hezbollah, are realities that we cannot shy away from or ignore. In part because of the instability in Iraq stemming from the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, the regional influences of Iran have grown significantly in importance. Tehran is now a power broker across the Middle East and Persian Gulf, from Yemen, where it supports the Houthi rebels, to Syria, where Iran-supported militia are fighting against ISIS  in support of the President Bashar al-Assad. It should be noted that Iran is not alone in its pursuit of regional hegemony and is in a bitter and I would say violent competition with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is itself not a benign regime. Many of the conflicts across the region are in fact proxy wars between Riyadh and Tehran. Foreign actors looking to do well in the region should be aware that there are not many good options to choose from.

It is important that we not view the Iranian regime or indeed the Iranian people as monolithic.  President Hassan Rouhani, a relatively progressive and moderate politician in the country, won his re-election recently by approximately 57 per cent of the vote in the face of stiff opposition from far more conservative candidates. His agenda for reform and re-engagement in the international community has resulted in the signing of the nuclear agreement and the growth of investment opportunities and trade opportunities for Iranian business. Some forms of protest, such as women not wearing hijabs in their cars, attending sporting events, point to a gradual shift in societal attitudes.

These changes, which may start off small, can build and eventually lead to progressive reform. They can be supported by the international community through engagement, including diplomacy,  business, education, and people-to-people exchanges.

Iranian Canadians can play a special role in this regard by building on the extensive commercial, academic and cultural networks that they already have in place throughout the country.

Now, I am not naïve about the prospects for an out-and-out reformist government in Iran, but I do believe that there is popular demand among Iranians for a more open society. Diplomatic engagement with Iran is one way in which Canada can support Iranian civil society, working especially with the diaspora community across our country.

Since the signing of the JCPOA, Iran has in fact seen sharp growth in its international engagement. The lifting of economic sanctions has led to increased foreign investment from many countries, for example, from France’s Total and Russia’s Gazprom in the oil and gas sector, and Italy’s  Ferrovie dello Stato and France’s AREP in the rail and transportation industry. According to the 2017 World Investment Report, Iran has seen an increase in its foreign direct investment by 63 per cent since 2016. Increased trade and investment with the world is not a panacea for the human rights abuses and terrorist activities of the Iranian government, but isolation of the regime is worse.

Colleagues, in thinking about Canada’s role in fostering positive change in Iran, the fundamental question is this: What is our leverage? On this point, expert witnesses who testified before the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade were clear. George Lopez, Professor Emeritus of Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies said, in response to a question on the likelihood of Canadian sanctions changing the behaviour of the Iranian regime: 

I think the likelihood is very low because you don’t have the volume and diversity of economic interactions, and, unless you are engaged at a secondary level with subsidiaries and others of your country that, from Europe or North Africa, are engaged with Iran, things that are not readily apparent,   I think your leverage is at a relatively low level.

Richard Nephew from Columbia University adds: I read it, this bill requires Iran to make progress on such a great variety of bad acts that it removes the Canadian government’s ability to respond to and reward improvement in any one particular element... There is simply no incentive for a foreign government to take the potentially difficult steps necessary to address bad behaviour because they will simply expect the sanctioning state’s  demands to never cease.

Put another way, this legislation could be a roadblock to the Canadian government’s ability to incentivize positive changes by Iran in areas of terrorism or human rights.

Professor Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at  the University of Denver goes  further:

...I believe Bill S-219 is counterproductive. In my reading it represents ‘‘more of the same.’’ Specifically, it continues a pattern of short-term thinking on Iran...

Colleagues, it’s fortuitous that I’m speaking on the very day that another bill dealing with the violation of human rights has returned to the Senate; I hope for speedy passage to Royal Assent. Bill S-226, also known as the Magnitsky bill, will provide the Government of Canada with the means to sanction foreign nationals responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. This includes Iranian nationals, but not Iranians exclusively. I strongly support Bill S-226 because of its greater specificity to target individuals, on the one hand, and the greater flexibility, on the other hand, for the minister to use her discretion in applying the act.

By contrast, Bill S-219 is too blunt in its design, to the point of being counterproductive. The passage of Bill S-219 will damage Canada’s efforts to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran and to use engagement as a way to encourage positive change.

Testimony from Global Affairs Canada has made this point crystal clear. Assistant Deputy Minister for Europe, Middle East and Maghreb, Alex Bugailiskis, wrote in a letter to the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade:

The government believes that it is through dialogue, not withdrawal and isolation, that it can advance Canada’s interests, including consular services to Canadians, and trade and foreign policy interests.

 ...Bill S-219 would likely hinder the re-establishment of ‘‘normal’’ diplomatic relations with Iran for two reasons:

  1. It would constrain the discretion and therefore the capacity of the Government to re-engage with Iran, and,
  2. Iran would likely respond negatively to its introduction.

Bill S-219 will not only be counterproductive for diplomacy but also for civil society engagement between Iran and Canada. Dr. Victoria Tahmasebi-Birgani, Assistant Professor of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga,  has written:

Bill S-219 will prevent a constructive reengagement with Iran and will destroy the hope for any positive impact on Iranian political process. My concern is that this bill will deny Canada and Canadian-Iranian diaspora of any constructive role in supporting pro-democracy movement within Iran.

She goes on:

As an expert on the topic of women’s status in Iran, I can firmly state that this bill will contribute to Iranian regime’s repressive measures against women’s activists and women’s movement... Iranian women’s movement thrives on its transnational connections, particularly where Iranian diaspora is the strongest, such as in Canada.

Richard Nephew has summed it up nicely: concern is that, in practice, Canada would simply find itself on the margins of international relations with Iran.

It has occurred to me that being on the margins of international relations with Iran is perhaps the very goal of the proponents of Bill S-219. If that is the case, you have yet another reason to reject this bill. My vision of  Canada in the world is that of a confident nation that engages with other countries, despite sharp disagreements, in order to resolve problems and advance Canadian values. It is not that of a country that throws stones at others from behind a wall in order to feel good about itself. Colleagues, Bill S-219 is well-intentioned but badly conceived and, ultimately, self-defeating. Please vote against it.