NEW YORK, N.Y. - The morning after issuing another passionate defence of Israel and sharply rebuking Iran, Prime Minister Stephen Harper sat down Friday with his Israeli counterpart to discuss the "danger the Iranian regime ultimately presents to us all."
Harper and Benjamin Netanyahu met in a tiny hotel room in mid-town Manhattan to delve into the Iranian situation the day after the Israeli prime minister urged the world to draw a "red line" to stop the Iranians from building a nuclear bomb.
"Our country has not been shy about warning the world of the danger the Iranian regime ultimately presents to all of us," Harper said in brief remarks in front of a crush of Canadian cameras before the men held their private, 30-minute discussion.
"We want to see a peaceful resolution and we work closely with our allies to try to alert the world to the danger this presents and the necessity of dealing with it."
Netanyahu praised Harper for his recent decision to close the Canadian embassy in Tehran.
"I think what you did, severing ties with Iran, was not only an act of statesmanship but an act of moral clarity," he told the prime minister.
"The fact that you took such clear, decisive steps is a great example to be followed by other nations, many of which attended a conference in Tehran and said nothing."
He added to the assembled Canadian media: "He's a great champion of freedom and a great friend of Israel."
Sitting against a backdrop of Canadian and Israeli flags, Netanyahu also reiterated what he told the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday.
The world must put into practice its attempts to stop Iran from enriching enough uranium to build a nuclear weapon, he said.
"And that means setting red lines on their enrichment process. It's their only discernible and vulnerable part of their nuclear program. If such red lines are set, I believe that Iran will back off."
In front of a VIP-packed American audience on Thursday night, Harper took a swipe at the United Nations and assailed Iran while picking up an international statesman award.
After skipping speaking at the United Nations General Assembly again this year, Harper suggested the UN has too often wooed dictators despite their appalling human rights records and sinister aims.
Canadians expect their governments to act for "the wider interests of humanity," he told the reception at the glitzy Waldorf Astoria hotel after receiving his award from the Appeal of Conscience Foundation.
"That is, of course, not the same thing as trying to court every dictator with a vote at the United Nations, or just going along with every international consensus, no matter how self-evidently wrong-headed."
Just a few blocks away at the United Nations complex, hundreds of world leaders have been gathered all week discussing the biggest global issues of the day, including the situation in Syria, the ominous dispute between Israel and Iran and the eruption of anti-American violence in the Middle East.
The prime minister pulled no punches in his own remarks about Iran after he accepted the foundation's "world statesman" award from storied U.S. statesman Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon's one-time secretary of state.
The civilized world must not "shrink from recognizing evil in the world for what it is. Our government simply contends that the international community must do more to further pressure and isolate this regime," Harper said.
He received a standing ovation when he told the packed ballroom that the world must speak out against the Iranian regime and "speak in support of the country that its hatred most immediately threatens — the state of Israel."
He added: "In supporting Israel, we don't sanction every policy its government pursues. When, however, it is the one country of the global community whose very existence is threatened, our government does refuse to use international fora to single out Israel for criticism."
Harper has faced a barrage of criticism back home for his decision to opt out of speaking to the UN again this year. Critics say he should work participate fully in the UN to promote Canada's message on the Iranian situation.
But he says it's not standard procedure for the Canadian prime minister to address the General Assembly every year. The UN has met seven times since he was elected; Harper's spoken twice, in 2006 and in 2010.
In his place, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird will address the UN on Monday.
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Prime Minister Stephen Harper smiles at Dr. Henry Kissinger after being presented with the World Statesman of the Year Award by the Appeal of Conscience Foundation at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York on Thursday, September 27, 2012.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers a speech at the Appeal of Conscience Foundation's Annual Awards Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York on Thursday, September 27, 2012. The Appeal of Conscience Foundation awarded Harper as the World Statesman of the Year.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper holds the World Statesman of the Year Award after being presented with it during a photo opportunity prior to the Appeal of Conscience Foundation's Annual Awards Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York on Thursday, September 27, 2012.
In this photo provided by the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, second right, president and founder, The Appeal of Conscience Foundation, and Dr. Henry Kissinger, far right, present Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, center, with the World Statesman Award, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012, at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Vikram Pandit, left, CEO, Citigroup, and Ginni Rometty, second left, President and CEO, IBM, each received the Appeal of Conscience Award from the ACF foundation, which champions religious freedom, human rights and tolerance throughout the world.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is seen prior to the Appeal of Conscience Foundation's Annual Awards Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York on Thursday, September 27, 2012.
Stephen Harper chats with Henry Kissinger.
Stephen Harper accepts the The Appeal of Conscience Foundation's World Statesman Award from Rabbi Arthur Schneier and Henry Kissinger in New York.
Stephen Harper speaks with The President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations.
Stephen Harper meets with Henry Kissinger at his New York office.
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?"