09/08/2012 09:21 EDT | Updated 11/08/2012 05:12 EST

Why Canada Severed Relations With Iran

Embassy staff back a van into the underground garage at the Iranian embassy in Ottawa, Friday Sept.7, 2012. The Canadian government says it is shutting its embassy in Tehran and severing diplomatic relations amid recent attacks on foreign diplomats in Iran. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Friday that the Canadian embassy in Tehran will close immediately and Iranian diplomats in Canada have been given five days to leave. He says he's worried about the safety of diplomats in Tehran following recent attacks on the British embassy there. He's also warning Canadians to avoid traveling to Iran. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Fred Chartrand)
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 Friday 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 Saturday 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."

Why Did Canada Cut Ties With Iran?

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