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Diplomats welcome Canada's shift to engage Iran, as Tories pile on questions

Last Updated Jan 28, 2016 at 7:00 am PST

OTTAWA – Some of Canada’s top allies are welcoming the Liberal government’s decision to re-engage with Iran because they say the hardline stance of the previous Conservative government was unhelpful as they pursued their historic nuclear deal.

Western diplomats expressed concern at what they described as the ongoing skepticism the Conservatives showed towards efforts to reach a deal with Iran to curb its ability to build a nuclear weapon.

In a series of recent interviews with The Canadian Press, the senior diplomats said they welcomed the decision of the Liberal government to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran, which the Conservatives cut in 2012.

But the Conservatives rebutted the criticism, accusing some European countries of being more interested in restarting trade than reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The international perspective emerges as the Conservative Opposition in the Commons has mounted a sustained attack on the Liberals for essentially reversing the hardline policy towards Iran.

As expected, the Liberals confirmed this week they would follow the European Union, the United States and others in lifting some sanctions against Iran.

The sanctions relief comes after Iran was found to be in compliance with the deal it reached with western powers last summer to curb its ability to use nuclear technology to build a bomb.

“They (the Conservatives) were quite skeptical about it, whereas this government has reacted in, I think, in a positive way,” Marie-Anne Coninsx, the EU ambassador to Canada, said in an interview.

“And honestly, I think it is a big success for Europe, for the international community … there are a lot of safeguards which are built in, permanent controls.”

Coninsx said EU negotiators kept in regular contact with senior Canadian officials as the talks among the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — plus Germany, progressed.

When an agreement was finally reached in July 2015, then-foreign affairs minister Rob Nicholson said Canada appreciated the effort, but would “continue to judge Iran by its actions, not its words.”

That often-repeated position by the Conservatives was not welcomed by the countries that were at the negotiating table, said one Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The countries that had completed the deal “don’t do crap deals,” the diplomat said.

“To have Canada, standing back, pounding out its skepticism — I’m glad that’s over.”

Nicolas Chapuis, France’s ambassador to Canada, said his country is looking forward to being able to discuss the Iran issue with Canadian counterparts.

“It was very difficult before to talk about Iran in Canada. Today, we have a new thinking. So we are in a position to re-engage Canada on Iranian issues.”

Peter Kent, the Conservative deputy foreign affairs critic, flatly rejected the criticism from the diplomats.

“I believe that some European countries put aside their concerns over the nuclear adventurism because they had higher commercial priorities,” Kent said in an interview.

“I believe that President Obama’s motivation was as much to have a legacy achievement and I believe essentially he’s punted a future nuclear crisis to his successor.”

The Conservatives continued questioning the government Wednesday on its decision to ease sanctions. Foreign affairs critic Tony Clement said the Liberals were “giving Iran a free pass and compromising Canadian values.”

“Iran commits horrible violations of the human rights of its own people, including against women and religious minorities,” he said. “It supports terrorism and regularly talks about the destruction of Israel.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the deal has made the world a safer place.

“We will continue to work alongside our allies to ensure security in the world and to engage with Iran in a responsible way that highlights both the human rights abuses at home and their sponsorship of terrorism abroad.”