Over a week after Canada suspended formal diplomatic relations with Iran, reaction in Canada remains mixed. While supporters of the Harper government and defenders of Israel have declared it bold and principled, a number of foreign policy analysts have raised questions about the timing, and cause of the sudden rupture. On Friday September 7th a senior diplomat from Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade arrived unannounced at the Iranian embassy in Ottawa carrying two letters. The first informed Iran’s diplomats that they were now considered personae non gratae, and had five days to pack up the embassy and leave the country. The second stated that Canada had already removed its diplomats from Tehran and was closing its embassy, effective immediately.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to praise the Conservative government, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a world leader of “the highest level.” On the CBC’s The National, Netanyahu declared, “We have to build a wall, not of silence, but of condemnation and resolve. And Canada just put a very big brick in that wall.” Yet, reaction in Canada was measured, with a number of prominent voices raising concern. James George, who served as Canada’s ambassador to Iran between 1972 and 1977 declared it “stupid to close an embassy in these circumstances.” “We need to keep an ear open there—our own ear,” George said.
Similarly, Doug Saunders writing in the Globe and Mail said, “Closing an embassy is rarely done even in moments of hostility. By its very nature, it prevents the possibility of further relations with the country in question, good or bad, influential or ineffective. Messages of protest, off-record moves to quell an eruption, clandestine efforts to build relations with reformists within the regime – all of these options are no longer possible. Once you’ve pulled the plug, you’re out of the game.” However, it was not merely the act of severing relations that raised questions but also the circumstances. Iranian Charge D’Affairs Kambiz Sheikh-Hassani insisted that Iran was given “no warning at all,” and that there were no discussion between the government of Canada and the government of Iran about this issue.
Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird outlined six reasons for the split, including Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria; refusal to abide by UN resolutions on nuclear proliferation; anti-Semitic rhetoric towards Israel; human rights violations (Baird declared Iran among “world’s worst” offenders); support for terrorism; and, disregard for the safety and protection of diplomatic personnel. “Canada’s position on the regime in Iran is well known,” said Baird. “Canada views the Government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today.”
Yet none of Baird’s justifications are new. Iran’s Charge D’Affaires confirmed that the letter provided to him by the Department of Foreign Affairs contained a litany of complaints that the government of Canada had made before, both in private and in public. When Britain closed their embassy in Tehran last year the justification was clear: its security was compromised after protestors stormed the grounds. Canada’s decision, on the other hand, was not preceded by an obvious incident or change in the status quo.
One theory that has emerged is that the government was taking preventative precautions to ensure Canada’s representatives abroad were not subject to reprisal punishments or violence. On the same day that Baird announced the severing of formal diplomatic relations, he also announced that Canada was listing Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, and there are rumours circulating that future sanctions will target Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and label it a terrorist entity.
A second theory, one that has gained popular support, is that Iranian diplomats in Ottawa were using their presence in Canada to intimidate Iranian-Canadians, and organize “guerrilla cells.” The CBC’s Brian Stewart argued, “Just days before Canada hastily broke off relations, the head of the Iranian army’s joint chiefs of staff boasted to the Fars News Agency that if Iran was attacked, America and its allies should expect major terror attacks in their homeland. The deputy chief commander of the Revolutionary Guard echoed this, vowing ‘Any aggression against Iran will expand the war into the borders of the enemies. They know our power…’”
Iranian Charge D’Affaires Hambiz Sheik-Hassani labelled these accusations “totally baseless,” insisting that the Canadian government had not provided any credible evidence to that affect, either in public, or in the private letter provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs.
It is difficult to determine what act or event may have caused what Iranian diplomats are calling an “irrational” action. What is clear, however, is that this action is consistent with the foreign policy conservatives have pursued since taking power in 2006, and especially since the appointment of John Baird as foreign minister in 2011. Upon assuming his position in 2011 Baird has sought to articulate what he calls a “values-based” foreign policy. Speaking before the UN General Assembly in 2011 Baird declared, “Canada no longer goes along to get along.” Canada “will ‘go along’ only if we ‘go’ in a direction that advances Canada’s values: freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”
What Canada’s “values-based” foreign policy has meant so far, aside from a lot of hyped-up rhetoric, has been an unwavering, unquestioning and unqualified support for Israel. Support that critics have described as more pro-Israel than Israel. In March of 2012, the streets aligned with Israeli flags, Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Canada on an official state visit. Shortly after that visit, while addressing the 5th Action Party of the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee, the Prime Minister declared, “We believe fundamentally that Israel has a right to exist. And, just as importantly, we recognize the conflict around Israel is at its heart about the refusal of still too many to accept the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. But Israel is here to stay.”
Such strong support for Israel has also necessitated criticism and hostility towards its enemies, especially Iran. “In my judgment,” Harper has argued, “these are people who have a particular, you know, a fanatically religious worldview, and their statements imply to me no hesitation about using nuclear weapons if they see them achieving their religious or political purposes.” While there remains very little consensus on what sparked Canada’s diplomatic row with Iran, it fits with the broader narrative of the conservative governments foreign policy, which amongst other things, has meant staunch support for Israel, and thinly veiled loathing and condemnation for its enemies.