Former prime minister Stephen Harper says peace in the Middle East will only come after change comes to Iran.
Speaking at an international conference on global challenges in New Delhi Tuesday, Harper said he does not believe Iran would have shot down a civilian aircraft deliberately — but the fact that Tehran knew it could happen and still allowed normal civilian air traffic "tells you something about the nature of that regime and its priorities."
"I do believe we need to see a change in Iran if we are going to see peace in the Middle East," he told the international audience at the Raisina Dialogue conference.
"I see an increasing number of states in the region — Israel, that I'm close to, certainly the Sunni Arab monarchies, others who are increasingly trying to work together and see a common future and common interests — and you have this one actor that quite frankly is … based on religious fanaticism and regional imperialism and, as I say as a friend of the Jewish people, frankly an anti-Semitic state."
Iranian leaders confirmed Saturday that Iran's Revolutionary Guard shot down the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 using surface-to-air missiles, killing all 176 passengers and crew on board. Of those passengers, 138 were destined for Canada, but it's not known how many were permanent residents or were travelling on visitor or student visas.
Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne has said that 57 of the victims were Canadian citizens.
The aircraft was shot down just hours after Iran launched missiles against two military bases in Iraq where U.S. and Canadian soldiers were stationed. Those strikes were ordered in retaliation for a targeted drone strike on Jan. 3 by the U.S. that killed Iran's top general, Qassem Soleimani.
This week, Canadian Jewish and Iranian organizations called on the government to list the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist entity in response to the attack on the Ukrainian aircraft.
'Tremendous loss of life'
Harper suggested that while the "tremendous loss of life" has inspired an outpouring of grief and anger in Iran and Canada, it could ultimately have a positive impact on the region.
"If somehow … there [were] any way through the protests in Iran or the consequences of this that Iran could go on a better trajectory, I think that would be very core to resolving the problems of the Middle East," he said. "Certainly not resolve them all overnight, but I think without a change in the nature of the government of Tehran, the Middle East will continue to be in turmoil."
Harper's Conservative government had long taken a hardline stand on Iran. It suspended diplomatic relations with the country in 2012, expelling diplomats and closing the embassy.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had campaigned on a promise to restore diplomatic relations with Iran in 2015, but the two countries have not re-engaged. The Liberal government did lift a broad ban on financial services, imports and exports involving Iran.
Nuclear deal with Iran
In May 2018, Harper signed his name to a full-page ad in the New York Times supporting U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from a landmark nuclear accord with Iran.
At the time, then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland said she regretted the U.S. decision and called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) an "important and useful agreement."
Champagne emphasized that position earlier today, saying that Canada continues to support the agreement.
"We believe that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), when fully implemented, is the best way to restrict Iran's ability to attain nuclear weapons capability and urge Iran to immediately restore its full commitments to the JCPOA," he said.
Thomas Juneau, a Middle East expert at the University of Ottawa, said the objective for Iran should be to pursue long-term democratic reform.
"Regime change implies that one regime goes down but another one goes up, and the problem in Iran right now is that there is no viable opposition, democratic or otherwise, to step in if this regime falls," Juneau said in an interview with CBC News Network.
"So the only alternative is chaos and fragmentation, and that is not an appealing proposition."
Pouyan Tabasinejad, vice-president of the Iranian Canadian Congress, said Harper's "bellicose and imbalanced" foreign policy — which saw Canada close off diplomatic ties with Iran and impose tough economic sanctions on it — served only to increase tensions.
"Though we should in no sense exonerate the role the Iranian authorities had in causing this tragedy, not to mention lying about it for days afterward, we should make no mistake," he said. "It is the foreign policy of Stephen Harper and his allies in the Trump administration that have created the tensions without which this tragedy could not have occurred ..."