CIC Saskatoon: Dennis Horak on Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Canadian diplomacy

Apr 27, 2020 | Event Summary

Even by two months in, 2020 was already a turbulent year for Iran and the Middle East. While Iran remains a key player in the region, there have been many recent developments. Saudi Arabia has also been active in the region and its interests have clashed with Iran. Both countries have a strong influence in neighbouring countries, such as Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. While both countries are powerful actors with an impact outside of the region, Canada has limited diplomatic relations with either. We did have a diplomatic presence in both, although our embassy was closed in Iran and our ambassador was thrown out of Saudi Arabia.

To help bring an understanding of this complex topic, CIC-Saskatoon on February 27, 2020, hosted one of Canada’s most experienced diplomats in the region, Dennis Horak. Ambassador Horak served as the last head of mission for Canada in Iran and later as the Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He has gained invaluable knowledge and can explain in great detail the circumstances behind specific events. While Horak provided a lot of knowledge, he also recommended how Canada should interact in the region. Horak described the challenges of running a diplomatic post in Iran, with direct harassment from the regime.

Canadian-Iranian relations had been difficult for decades, since Canada assisted US diplomatic staff escape the country after their embassy was seized in 1979. Matters were made worse in 2012 when Canada passed the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act which allowed the Government of Iran to be sued in Canadian courts for their support for terrorism. The Act increased the risk to Canadian diplomatic personnel in the country – particularly in light of previous attacks on foreign Embassies in the country. Diplomatic relations between Iran and Canada were cut.  While Canadian-Iranian relations took a significant loss, the benefit to Canada is debatable, since the act has been used by American victims that had already sued Iran in US courts. Even though the relations with Iran were not great, Horak still stressed the importance of maintaining a diplomatic connection.

Another example of Canadian diplomatic relations facing challenges in the region was from a tweet by the Canadian embassy in Saudi Arabia, which resulted in Ambassador Horak being expelled from the country. The tweet by Global Affairs Canada, which was translated into Arabic, as per usual practice, called for the immediate release of women’s rights activists in the Kingdom.

While Horak agreed that the Saudis overreacted, he is still critical of the tweet. The key point that he bought up was that we undercut Canadian diplomatic links with the Saudi government for no benefit. While the Canadian government stood behind the tweet and it did receive praise from human rights activists, it did little for women’s rights in the region. This is especially true when compared to previous Canadian government actions with Saudi Arabia. A prime example of this were the thousands of Saudi Arabian students who would study in Canada, experience a different way of life, and return home. Mr. Horak pointed out that these students are “agents of change” for progressing Canadian values, far more than any tweet could ever achieve.

Horak explained that the Canadian government needs to decide its purpose behind the interactions with countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. If the Canadian government’s objective is to not interact with countries that do not share our values or to progress human rights in the region, then the government needs to change its methods. If we adopt a policy of cutting ties with governments that do not share our values, then Saudi Arabia and Iran are certainly not the only ones. To progress human rights in regions that need attention, having a diplomatic presence is crucial.

One of the former ambassador’s most important take-home messages was that change is done through engagement with high ranking members and creating opportunities for others to experience life in a different country. Canada has shown that it is capable of playing a part in progressing human rights, although a diplomatic presence and clear objective is required.

About the author: Aaron Canitz is a long time member of the CIC Saskatoon Branch. He completed a International Studies degree from the University of Saskatchewan and has worked for NGOs in different countries.