No country suspends diplomatic relations with an adversary lightly. It signals that the possibility for future dialogue is over. While it is true that Canada has not been a major player in international negotiations with Iran, with this latest Canadian decision to suspend diplomatic relations with Iran, we are now effectively out of the game.
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. There are several Canadian citizens in prison, two on death row. Like the United States and Britain, Canada will now have to rely upon other friendly countries remaining in Iran to protect our interests and citizens there.
While strictly speaking our action is not irreversible, once diplomatic relations have been suspended it is very difficult to get them back. We can expect that Canada will not have any diplomatic relations with Iran for the foreseeable future. Indeed it may take years before relations are re-established.
Canada’s reasons for acting so suddenly are not convincing. The Prime Minister has listed Iran’s terrible human rights record, its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, its provocative nuclear program and its repeated threats against Israel as reasons to leave. These are actually reasons why we should stay. When the going gets rough you really need your diplomats. Canada’s tradition is to be one of the last countries to leave in a crisis, not the first. Iran itself is a perfect example. After the Iranian revolution, the Conservative Government decided Canada should stay on in Iran and under the courageous leadership of ambassador Ken Taylor we saved several American hostages.
There is one good reason that could explain our action and both Foreign Minister John Baird and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have referred to it. Iran could have put our diplomats at risk. It is possible that Iran has made some specific threats against our diplomatic personnel in the last few weeks and the government felt it had no choice. However, the reaction of the Iranian government suggests that this is not the case. Iran seems as surprised by our action as other countries are. If the Canadian government is acting because it has received specific threats then the Canadian public should know about it and I think our action against Iran would be better understood.
In the absence of this type of concrete information the question remains why have we taken this drastic action and in particular, why now?
There is one possible scenario where an attack on our embassy and diplomats would be possible or even likely. If Israel were to launch a unilateral attack on Iran without American or international support and Canada was the only major Western country on the ground in Iran supporting Israel, then our embassy and diplomats would likely be at risk. Has the Canadian government decided to provide this type of support to Israel and seeing the danger to our diplomats, acted to pull them out in advance?
Our opposition parties should move for an immediate debate in Parliament on our foreign policy towards Iran so that the Canadian people know where the government is leading us. The government should explain how it sees a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue with Iran given that believes further diplomacy to be futile. Secondly, Parliament should know how committed Canada is to Israel, particularly in the event of Israeli military actions.
As I have written in these pages before, our policy towards Iran is the first time in decades that a Canadian prime minister has acted to reduce the diplomatic opportunities for peace during a crisis. The latest government decision to suspend diplomatic relations has upped the ante again.
John Mundy is a former Canadian ambassador to Iran who was expelled in 2007. Now retired, he is a Visiting Associate at the Centre for International Policy Studies, University of Ottawa. He is working on a book on his experience in Iran.