By Bryan Gibson

via The Majalla

Recently, the Canadian government severed ties with Iran, citing threats to its diplomats in Tehran. While Israel has hailed the decision as a “clarion call to action”, few Canadian diplomats are convinced.

It is not too often that I find myself nodding in agreement with the rhetoric being spouted by Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi. But on Monday, when Salehi decried Canada’s surprise decision on 7 September to sever diplomatic relations with Iran, describing Prime Minister Steven Harper’s government as “neo-conservative extremist[s]”, I could not agree more. Canada’s abrupt decision to sever relations with Iran has left myself and many others scratching their heads, asking why?
The Canadian government’s rationale for severing of relations with Iran was contained in a statement released by Canada’s Foreign Minister, John Baird, last Friday. It offers the following explanation for severing ties: “The Iranian regime is providing increasing military assistance to the [Syrian] regime; it refuses to comply with UN resolutions pertaining to its nuclear program; it routinely threatens the existence of Israel and engages in racist anti-Semitic rhetoric and incitement to genocide; it is among the world’s worst violators of human rights; and it shelters and materially supports terrorist groups”.

This statement is a bit confusing. While it is fair to criticize Iran for its support for Bashar al-Assad, its failure to adhere to UN resolutions on its nuclear program, its support for Hizbollah and Hamas, and its poor human rights record, I fail to see how Canada’s foreign policy has anything to do Iran’s rhetorical jousting with Israel. Even the Obama administration is trying to distance itself from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s hysterical rhetoric about Iran. And since when has Iran incited anyone to commit genocide? There is simply no factual basis for this claim and underscores just how out of touch with reality the Harper government really is.

Another reason cited for the severing of ties is Iran’s “blatant disregard for the Vienna Convention and its guarantee of protection for diplomatic personnel…. Our diplomats serve Canada as civilians, and their safety is our number one priority.” Of course ensuring the safety of your diplomats is a priority, but when have our diplomats in Tehran ever been in danger?

Certainly, Ottawa has not had glowing relations with Tehran. Indeed, following Canada’s involvement in exfiltrating six American diplomats, including the U.S. Charge d’Affairs, Bruce Laingan, from Iran at the start of the Iranian hostage crisis in November 1979, Iran expelled Canadian diplomats for eight years. In 1991, Canada and Iran resumed diplomatic relations, but did not exchange ambassadors until 1996. This was all part of a policy that Canadian diplomats called “controlled engagement”, with the Liberal government of Jean Chretien believing that while some form of dialogue was necessary to express Canadian concerns over Iran’s deplorable human rights record, its nuclear program, and its opposition to the peace process. It also allowed Canadian diplomats to be on the ground. But Canadian-Iranian relations underwent a chill in 2003 when a Canadian photojournalist, Zahra Kazemi, was arrested and beaten to death while in custody. While Canada described the death as “state-sanctioned murder” and recalled its ambassador from Iran, it still maintained its embassy in Tehran, albeit with a small staff. It was not until 2007, when Tehran kicked out Canada’s ambassador, John Mundy, in retaliation for Ottawa’s rejection of two of its nominees for ambassador. Since then, Canada has maintained a small diplomatic team in Tehran. This sequence of events suggests that even though Canada and Iran have had a tumultuous relationship since reestablishing relations in 1988, through thick and thin, Canadian policymakers have consistently felt it wise to maintain the embassy in Tehran.

Part of the reason for this stems from the depth of Canada’s cultural ties to Iran. Next to the US, Canada has the largest expatriate Iranian community, with some 120,000 Canadians of Iranian ancestry and 400,000 Iranians living in Canada. But the severing of ties also makes it incredibly difficult for Canadians to travel to Iran and for those already inside Iran to receive consular services.

Now, imagine yourself under arrest in Iran, accused of spying for your country, and having been sentenced to death, when suddenly your country abandons you, leaving you with no help and no ties to your homeland or family. This is exactly the scenario of what has just happened to two Canadians, Hamid Ghassemi-Shall and Saeed Malekpour. Worse yet, the Harper government’s actions could potentially put these two at great risk, as the Iran’s leaders assess their retaliatory options. While Harper pledged that his government will continued “to aid our citizens [in Iran] in co-operation with our partners and allies in the democratic world,” that is simply not enough. The Harper government has recklessly abandoned two of its citizens.

On Saturday, I wrote a letter to the editor at the Globe and Mail, Canada’s leading national newspaper, to condemn the Harper government’s move. In my letter, I argued that Canada’s decision was based the Harper government’s “narrow-minded ideology and not a realpolitik calculation of national interests. Indeed, if it were the latter, Canadian diplomats would be allowed to continue observing and reporting on the internal dynamics of this incredibly important country.”

Since having my letter published, at least three former Canadian ambassadors, two of which were ambassador to Iran, have publicly questioned the Harper government’s move.

Writing in February after Harper made the bold claim that Iran would have “no hesitation” about using nuclear weapons, Canada’s last full ambassador to Iran, John Mundy, who was expelled in 2007, expressed his concern about the direction Canada’s Iran policy was taking. “This is the first time in decades that a Canadian prime minister, Liberal or Conservative, appears to be advocating approaches that reduce diplomatic opportunities for peace during an international crisis.” After the news broke on Friday, Mundy described the move as “a grave step” and warned that it cannot “easily be reversed.”

Former Canadian ambassador to Iran, Kenneth Taylor, who famously played a role in the “Canadian Caper”, which saw Canadian officials help the CIA smuggle six American diplomats that had escaped the US embassy in 1979 during the Iranian hostage crisis, is also disturbed by the government’s decision. “I really can’t see the rationale of this move,” Taylor told Canada’s CTV News on Friday. “It’s a very bold stroke to sever diplomatic relations and close the embassy within five days.” And if Iran posed a threat to Canada, Taylor argued, it was actually more important to have officials on the ground who can “size up the situation and report from the spot” than the opposite.

This is exactly the position of Canada’s former ambassador to Spain, Daniel Moglat, who wrote in the Globe and Mail: “Canadian embassies, like the one just closed in Iran, exist to serve a number of purposes. One purpose is to speak for Canada, and to listen. When you close an embassy, you are closing your ears, shutting your eyes and covering your mouth.”

More recently, Mundy followed up his February Op-Ed with a new piece, published on Monday in the Globe and Mail, which argues: “Canada’s action reduces our presence on the ground in Iran to zero. We will no longer have the ability to communicate directly with Iran’s government in Iran. We will no longer have Canadian diplomats following political developments within the country and using their local contacts and knowledge to assess how Iranian policy towards the outside world might evolve. A new presidential election to replace President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled for 2013 and we won’t be there to talk to the various actors and pass back to other interested governments, particularly the United States, our assessment of the candidates. Lastly and very significantly, our diplomats will no longer be able to protect the rights of Canadian citizens in Iran.”

Taken together, it is hard not to make the following conclusions: the Canadian government’s decision to sever ties with Iran is based entirely on ideology, does not advance Canada’s national interests in any form, is completely reckless, and endangers the lives of its citizens, the very people it must protect at all costs. And for what? Beyond improving Canada’s image with Israel’s hardline leadership, which is equally reckless in its pursuit of war with Iran, not a single net benefit is to be gained by this fiasco. As I concluded in my letter, “In this time of growing uncertainty, we need people on the ground, lest we follow the same path the Americans took in 2003. This decision is perhaps one of the most ill-conceived ideas in modern history. At least when the Americans and British cut ties, they had good reason.”

- Bryan R. Gibson is a PhD candidate in International History at the London School of Economics and author of “Covert Relationship: American Foreign Policy, Intelligence and the Iran Iraq War”. He specializes in US foreign policy toward the Middle East, with particular emphasis on the Iran, Iraq, and the Kurds.