Harper's Stance on Iran? A Political Checkmate

09/13/2012 11:50 EDT | Updated 11/13/2012 05:12 EST
The Iranian flag flies over the Iranian embassy in London, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011. Britain's top diplomat accused Iran's government Thursday of supporting repression in Syria, as European Union foreign ministers discussed imposing more sanctions on both countries. Mobs stormed the British Embassy in Tehran, the Iranian capital, for hours Tuesday, prompting Britain to pull its diplomats out of the country. Germany, France and the Netherlands have recalled their ambassadors in solidarity. Britain ordered all Iranian diplomats out of the U.K. within 48 hours and shuttered its ransacked embassy in Tehran on Wednesday, in a significant escalation of tensions between Iran and the West. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)


Many commentators were surprised and puzzled when the Canadian government closed its embassy in Iran last week, as Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird included no new information to give a solid reason for doing so. In fact, in his list of reasons for shutting the Canadian Embassy in Iran and expelling Iranian ambassadors from Canada, Baird did not include two obvious ones: the murder and cover-up of Canadian-Iranian photographer Zahra Kazemi in 2003 and the suspected spying operations against Canadian-Iranian citizens out of the Iranian mission office in Ottawa.

What does it matter, you ask? It matters because if you examine the context of relations between Canada and Israel, coupled with the currently strained relations between the United States and Israel, you will see why this move by the Canadian government is not at all the morally righteous act it's being cloaked in, but a purely political one.

As a means of gaining political favour with Jewish voters in Canada, Prime Minister Steven Harper has made it his mission through some very calculated actions to be seen as the ultimate champion of Israel. The Harper government has made no bones about wanting to have closer relations with Israel, going so far as to call Israel's war against Lebanon in 2006 "measured" and drafting a "Canadian resolution" giving Israel Canada's full support in that war.

In 2009 the Conservatives were papering competitive ridings with flyers which practically declared that Liberals were anti-semitic. The Harper government doesn't shy away from labelling people as anti-semites when they criticize Israeli government policy, making it increasingly difficult for anyone to be critical of anything the Israeli government does. In 2011 at the G8 summit in Deauville, France, U.S. President Barack Obama led the charge to present a unified western front in the name of Middle East peace. Prime Minister Harper stood alone in refusing to agree on a return to Israel's 1967 borders, scuttling any hopes of reaching a consensus.

The question we must ask is, why now? If you have paid attention to relations between the United States and Israel, especially this year, you would have noted the increased hostility between the administration of President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Near the end of August, there was a significant blow up between Netanyahu and the U.S. ambassador to Israel because the Obama administration wouldn't take a firm stance that all options were on the table when considering actions against Iran. It's a safe bet that Harper noticed this and decided this was his time to take a firm stand against the rogue state of Iran, curry favor with Israel, gain Prime Minister Netanyahu's praise (as he did), and reap the political rewards back home.

Harper's calculation is that in this election year, Obama isn't going to do anything to upset the many in his base that are anti-war and anti-military. Harper is also taking into account that should Republican challenger Mitt Romney win, there will be an even harder stance against Iran, which will make Harper's current stance look practically clairvoyant. Either way, he can't lose.

In summary, the actions discussed are sudden only to us observers on the outside. These kinds of political machinations happen often, especially in a government that knows it holds a tenuous grip on targeted voters in Canada. What better way to crank up the domestic sentiment than to thumb your nose at an entire country that a large portion of your constituency is hostile towards, while other western leaders are left scratching their collective heads?