DFAIT skirts Iranian government, tries to reach Iranian people (UPDATED)

Canada severed diplomatic relations with Iran last September, cutting off contact between the Iranian and Canadian governments. Simultaneously, however, a team at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has been working to engage directly with Iranian citizens.

It’s a difficult challenge. DFAIT is banking on the populist potential of the Internet and online social media.

To this end, DFAIT and University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs are, today and tomorrow, hosting a conference, or a “Global Dialogue” on the future of Iran. The physical conference is taking place at U of T and involves speakers from the Iranian diaspora.

The deeper goal, however, is to converse with Iranians inside Iran using a variety of social media. Iranians not at the conference can submit questions through Google Moderator and other tools. Some already have. The conference is also being live-streamed online, and has accounts on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird delivered opening remarks. He praised Iranian democrats for their protests that preceded and in many ways inspired the Arab Spring, and he said the Iranian regime’s brutal response demonstrates that what it fears most is the “courageous people of Iran.”

DFAIT also launched, earlier this year, the website:, in English, French, and Farsi. It says Canada is pursing opportunities to dialogue with Iranians through “direct diplomacy” and includes an email address for Iranians to contact Canada’s “Direct Diplomacy Team.”

I’ve asked DFAIT for more clarity on what exactly this team does and the sort of dialogue it is seeking, and will update here when I receive that information.

UPDATE: I’ve spoken with a government official involved in the project. The official says there is an “urgency” to connect with Iranians inside the country, given the dire human rights situation there. The official says DFAIT is contacted by Iranians for a variety of reasons, but said DFAIT is making a particular effort to reach Iranians involved in democratic activism and civil society building, and to give them a space to speak and debate freely in forums such as the Global Dialogue, discussed above. More “energy and resources” are therefore committed to responding to and communicating with Iranians than might be the case with individuals from other countries.

The official acknowledged that the Iranian government would certainly view such activity on Canada’s part as a hostile act, and involvement by its citizens as seditious. DFAIT tries to protect involved Iranians by attempting to preserve their anonymity, and by acting in a transparent measure to avoid accusations of subterfuge.

It occurs to me that these sorts of projects might be something of a beneficial side effect of ending formal diplomatic relations last year. Previously, while both countries exchanged accredited diplomats, their activities were in theory limited. Iran, for example, was not supposed to run ‘cultural outreach’ activities anywhere except Ottawa. Presumably Canadian diplomats were likewise constrained.

The problem was that in practice Iran was extremely active all over Canada, operating through student organizations, mosques, and other fronts. I don’t think Canadian diplomats in Iran ran similar networks. It would have been dangerous, and much more difficult.  (One former Canadian diplomat in Tehran described his posting to me as one that involved a high level of isolation.)

Sending Iran’s diplomats back to Tehran crippled its outreach and dissident monitoring efforts here. It’s now more difficult for Iran to organize and fund cultural events and Farsi classes, and to directly liaise with members of Iran’s diaspora. I’m told Iran’s diplomatic contingent  left town with at hefty bill for a conference fronted by a supposed student group unpaid. Iran still has friends in Canada, including several regime-linked individuals with homes (and wives and children) here, but its reach has been shortened.

For Canada, meanwhile, it seems that now the gloves have come off in a previously undeclared culture war. I doubt DFAIT would be so actively working to undermine the mullahs in Tehran when we still had diplomats stationed there and formal diplomatic ties. DFAIT also benefits from a new playing field. Previously, Iranian diplomats in Canada enjoyed a long leash because they were working in a free and open society; Canadian diplomats in Iran did not. Now, jostling for influence on the Internet, Canadian diplomats are not so handicapped. It’s doubtful that a conference in Tehran on the future of Canada would attract many Canadian online participants.

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