MONTREAL - Canada decided to close its embassy in Iran a few weeks ago after spending several months re-evaluating its presence in the country amid growing tension, the federal government said Friday.
Comments by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird elaborated on a decision that caught many observers off-guard.
They cast the move as a security decision in remarks they made Friday, a day on which Western embassies came under attack in different parts of the Muslim world.
Baird said Canada has always been committed to the Iranian people despite its problems with their government but was concerned about Iran's unwillingness to help protect foreign embassies from attack.
That was a key factor in closing Canada's mission in Tehran a week ago, he said, a move that drew a rebuke from Iranian officials.
"We couldn't have possibly been clairvoyant enough to predict the upheaval going on around that region when we made the decision three or four weeks ago and then announced it 10 days ago," Baird said after a speech to an international relations group.
"But the one thing you see in Cairo, you see in Tunisia, you see in Benghazi and Tripoli, in Khartoum, is the governments and their security forces are doing what they can to protect these diplomatic installations. They don't do that in Tehran."
Baird said the federal government began re-revaluating its presence in Iran several months ago, especially after Iranian authorities did nothing to stop an incursion against the British embassy last November.
He said Iran's record of non-assistance to foreign embassies goes back decades. The most famous example came in 1979 when militants stormed the U.S. embassy during the Iranian revolution and took 52 people hostage for 444 days.
Canadian embassy staff actually helped some of the Americans flee the country in what has since famously become known as "The Canadian Caper." That episode is the focus of a new film, "Argo."
"Seven or eight months ago, we made the decision to draw down our staff. We ended the immigration program in Tehran," Baird said. "We went down to a skeletal staff of seven or eight."
A further step that played into the decision was Parliament's passage of the Justice For Victims of Terrorism Act, which requires Canada to list by Friday countries that are state sponsors of terrorism.
"Iran is clearly a state sponsor of terrorism," he said. "The facts are unequivocal in that regard.
"I don't know how you'd call a state a state sponsor of terrorism and then leave men and women on the ground there."
Baird also said there were concerns about the embassy building itself, saying it is not as safe as the government would like. He noted the facility sits next to the road.
"We spent a lot of time debating it and thinking about it but at the end of the day it just became uncomfortable to leave it open," he said.
"We made a difficult decision that I don't apologize for. We believe it was the right decision."
When the closure was announced, Iran's Fars news agency said the country's parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, cancelled a planned visit to Canada in protest.
Tehran's foreign ministry spokesman also accused the Harper government of "extremist" views and said it was "unwise'" for Canada to have set a five-day deadline for Iranian diplomats to leave the country.
The Iranian foreign ministry also said the embassy closure was "unprofessional, unconventional, and unjustifiable."
The Foreign Affairs Department has warned Canadians against travelling to Iran, singling out dual Canadian-Iranians as especially vulnerable because Tehran does not recognize their new citizenship.
Harper, at another event outside Montreal near the U.S. border, echoed Baird, saying Iran had a dismal record of respecting diplomatic immunity and it was vital the embassy staff be protected.
The prime minister expressed concern about the security of diplomats, given events in the Middle East, and he drew links to the Iran embassy closure.
"It's my responsibility to ensure that our people are protected," Harper said.
"Obviously we've closed one mission — that's in Iran — where we thought the risks are particularly high, mainly because the government in the past ... has not recognized diplomatic immunities and protections."
Canada also closed its embassy in Cairo on Thursday and will evaluate on a day-to-day basis when to reopen it.
"Obviously the security of our personnel is the top priority," Baird said.
"We're horrified with the violence we've seen but at least the state (of Egypt) is providing a modicum of support for the diplomatic community there."
Baird said Canada is not contemplating withdrawing embassy staff from Egypt at the current time.
In a broad speech on foreign policy Friday, Baird said Canada must play an active role in promoting fundamental liberties around the world even if it makes people uncomfortable.
He said discussing rights for women and gays and lesbians isn't always popular at international forums.
But the practice of forced marriages must end, he said, pointing out that when girls as young as nine years old are forced into marriage there's no chance they will be able to get an education.
He also discussed gay rights and told the story of Ugandan activist David Kato. The man was beaten to death in his home with a hammer after a tabloid newspaper called for his killing.
"It is cases like his that cause me to raise this issue, often to the discomfort of people sitting across the table, as I did at recent meetings in Australia and New York," Baird said.
"In these meetings, Canada was the loudest voice. I called on my counterparts to repeal regressive laws in their own countries because I firmly believe it is the role of the state to protect its people regardless of gender, sexuality or faith."
He insisted, however, that human rights and democracy are not something to be forced on others. All Canada can do is promote its values, he said.
"Doing what is right does not mean forcing our values on others," he said.
"We cannot impose our form of government or our institutions on others. Doing so assumes we need to teach people how to be free. We don't. We all share an inalienable right to be free. Our job is to help people understand this fundamental truth."
The foreign affairs minister reiterated several times during his appearance Friday that Canada is committed to the Middle East and has no problem with the Iranian people — only their government. Relations with them had been frustrating, he said.
"We've had little capacity to be able to interlock with the Iranian embassy," he said in a brief question-and-answer period. "Their support of international terrorism, their abysmal human-rights record, has made it very difficult for any Canadian government to effectively liaise with them."
Baird said while two Canadian citizens and one permanent resident who are on death row in Iran have the full support of the government, Canada is enlisting "friends and allies" to press their case with the Iranian government.
He said efforts by Canadian diplomats had been met "with nothing but hostility" and "outrageous comments."
"Frankly, our ability to influence the regime in Iran has been limited for some time," he said, pointing out that Canada had little impact when it came to pressing the country on the death of Zahra Kahzemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist who was beaten to death in an Iranian prison in 2003.
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Canada's announcement that it has severed diplomatic relations with Iran was surprising, even unprecedented, experts in international relations say. Foreign Minister John Baird was in Russia when he announced the government was kicking Iran's diplomats out of Canada and recalling the handful of Canadian diplomats in Tehran. "I was very surprised by the Canadian announcement," James Devine, an Iran expert at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., told CBC News, noting that it isn't tied to a specific event or a reaction to "an acute crisis in the relationship." "Oh my god, I can't tell you how upset and scared I am right now," Niaz Salimi, the president of the Iranian-Canadian Community Council, said in an interview with Embassy magazine. Baird's statement lists a series of old grievances but does not say what specifically prompted the surprise move. He did say "the Iranian regime has shown blatant disregard for the Vienna Convention and its guarantee of protection for diplomatic personnel," likely a reference to the ransacking of the British Embassy in Tehran by protesters in 2011 while Iranian police looked on. He also alluded to the safety of Canadian diplomats -- something Canada's last ambassador to Iran, John Mundy, told the CBC's Nancy Wilson has been a long-standing concern, though he noted the government has not provided any information about specific threats. Mundy, who was expelled from Iran in 2007, has since retired from the diplomatic corps. He called Canada's action "a very drastic step" and one that surprised him, too. In an interview on CBC Radio's The House, Baird emphasized his "concern was for the safety of the men and women working at the Canadian mission," but when asked by host Evan Solomon whether there was "something specific" he conceded there was "not a direct threat" or an increased security risk. "The mission in Tehran is not one of the safest we have," Baird also told Solomon. "It faces a busy road and it could be overrun pretty quickly." Janice Stein, arguably Canada's leading Middle East expert and the director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, told CBC News she sees the move as an "issue of security for diplomatic personnel in Tehran as the sanctions ramp up, and Canada's remaining diplomatic personnel would be a prime target were crowds to turn hostile." Here are some other possible motivations for the severing of ties. <em>With files from CBC</em>
Canada In The Headlines
Canada's move is making international headlines and its significance shouldn't be underestimated. Even after its embassy in Tehran was ransacked -- an attack its ambassador, Dominick Chilcott, described as "a state-supported activity -- it did not suspend diplomatic relations, although it did expel Iran's diplomats. At the time, British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told the BBC the U.K.'s response "doesn't mean we're cutting off all diplomatic relations with Iran; it doesn't mean we are in any way lessening our determination to try to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear question." So why did Canada suspend relations now? Devine points to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran last week. Iranian officials boasted about a successful summit, which involved most countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America. He says the summit "was not an overwhelming success for Iran but demonstrated they are not as isolated as the West would hope." The West is trying to isolate Iran over the dispute about Iran's nuclear program. In that context, Devine says, Canada may be trying to send "a symbolic message to Iran after the NAM meeting that they should not conclude that their isolation is over or that they can escape western pressure." He believes the suspension's timing could be related to Canada's Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which allows victims of terrorism to sue a country that Canada lists as a state sponsor of terrorism. On Friday, Baird said he was adding Iran to that list, along with Syria. The act, passed in March, gave the federal cabinet until mid-September to list states sponsoring terrorism.
Why Make The Announcement In Russia?
"The timing and the way they did it is rather awkward because they chose to announce it on the doorstep of Russia, which is the country that is the strongest proponent of the negotiated settlement to the nuclear issue," Mundy said, calling Canada's announcement "an implicit criticism of Russian policy toward Iran." However, the timing may also be connected with when the last Canadian diplomats left Iran, which was ahead of the announcement. That Baird made the announcement in Russia also raises the question of whether there was some urgency for Canada's actions. Ray Boisvert, the assistant director of Canadian Security Intelligence Service until April 2012, told Solomon that Canada's move was unprecedented, since that is something that only "usually happens in very severe conditions." He also noted that Canada does not normally take the lead in this kind of foreign policy action. Boisvert also pointed to what he said was the Iranian Embassy "running some kind of threatening operation" aimed at the Iranian community in Canada. According to Boisvert, Iran "absolutely" poses a security threat in Canada. Kaveh Shahrooz, vice president of the Iranian-Canada Congress, told Wilson that "members of the community are worried if they partake or speak out, that will be reported to [the Iranian Embassy in] Ottawa and there'll be repercussions for that person if they go back home, or for their family." "We've been concerned for some time about the actions taken by the mission in Ottawa," Baird told Solomon.
Possible Military Strike
Mundy, Salimi and others point to a possible military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities as a motive behind Canada's announcement. "For us, it's an immediate sign of attack on Iran," Salimi told Embassy magazine. However, Baird said on The House that the government has "received no notice of any decision taken by the United States or Israel in this regard, so I can categorically say that the timing of the decision had nothing to with an imminent strike. " For his part, Devine said an imminent strike is not on tap. "The signs don't suggest there's an imminent attack coming from the Israelis or the Americans right now. And the Americans, especially, are not going to want to get into anything until the elections are over." Stein also told CBC News she does "not believe Canada's action was in response to any intelligence information about an imminent strike." The U.S. has been building up its forces in the region and putting pressure on Iran, Devine points out, "They want to make sure the Iranians feel there is a possibility of attack, because if the Iranians were ever to decide there is no chance the Americans are going to attack, their [American] leverage would be significantly reduced. Building up forces is consistent not just with an attack but consistent with the idea there are trying to use pressure." Stein agrees: "The U.S. is at pains to say there is no specific intelligence yet that suggests the Iranians have made the decision to weaponize their nuclear program and, given that, I would be very, very surprised if President [Barack] Obama would resort to force before the election."
Iranian Canadians Will Feel It Most
The Canadian government's move is likely to have little impact in Iran. "The Iranians are not looking at Canada as that important an actor in all of this," Devine said, adding Canada's economic relations with the Islamist nation have gradually weakened. Stein holds a similar view, noting that "the Iranian government certainly knows where we stand, we've made our position forcefully." Ken Taylor, who was Canada's ambassador in Iran during the U.S. hostage crisis that began in 1979, told CBC's Hannah Thibedeau he doesn't agree with Canada's decision to suspend diplomatic relations. "Given Canada's status as an international player, there's great value to having someone there on the ground who can interpret what is going on, to the extent that there are challenges to doing that properly," he said. Mundy said that now, "We no longer have the ability to communicate directly, government to government, with the Iranian government." Stein says, "The major impact will be on the Iranian diaspora in Canada, which will have a lot more difficulty getting visas to go home for visits."
Canadians Imprisoned In Iran
Another significant impact to Mundy is that "we no longer have Canadian diplomats on the ground to protect the interests of Canadian citizens" in Iran. "There are a lot of Canadian citizens in Iran, some of whom are in jail, and some of whom depend upon the Canadian diplomats to make representations on their behalf." Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, a Canadian citizen jailed in Iraq since 2008, is one of three Canadians being held in Iran's notorious Evin prison, the same prison where Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was killed in 2003, which led to a serious worsening of relations between the two countries. Iran sentenced Ghassemi-Shall to death in 2009. His wife, Antonella Mega, told Thibedeau on Power and Politics that she feels the Canadian announcement is "a great disappointment for me and Hamid." The diplomats who have now left Iran "have expressed great concern for Hamid's case" and "have been continuously advocating for him." Feeling that "a door is now closed," Mega said she wants to hear from the Canadian government, "What is the plan that Canada has to help Hamid?"