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James George, shown in his Toronto home, is a former Canadian ambassador to Iran in the 1970s. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
James George, shown in his Toronto home, is a former Canadian ambassador to Iran in the 1970s. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Severing ties with Iran ‘stupid,’ Canada’s envoy from 1970s says Add to ...

The man who predicted the Islamic revolution in Iran more than three decades ago says he stands strongly opposed to the Harper government’s decision last week to sever diplomatic relations.

“It’s stupid to close an embassy in these circumstances,” said James George, who served as Canada’s ambassador to Iran between 1972 and 1977. “We need to keep an ear open there – our own ear.”

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Mr. George, who turned 93 this week, said it is important for Canada to have its own voice “in defending our citizens who are on death row in Iran, and not have to go through another embassy that has other priorities.”

Named Canada’s man in Tehran after diplomatic stints heading up high commissions and embassies in India, Sri Lanka and the Middle East, Mr. George said he knew by 1976 that the days of the shah of Iran – Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – were numbered.

The Canadian had a reputation among his international colleagues for having his ear to the ground, Mr. George recalled in an interview this week.

“Richard Helms, who had been the head of the CIA and then became the American ambassador, used to tease me for spending too much time with the mullahs in [the Iranian holy city of] Qum,” he said. “He’d say to me, ‘How much military equipment do they have?’ And I’d say to him, ‘We’ll see who has the last laugh.’”

Mr. George, who retired from Canada’s foreign service after his tenure in Tehran, spurns any suggestion that he was prescient. “It was just obvious what was going to happen. My Farsi wasn’t good enough, but I had friends who were telling me what the mullahs were saying right across the country. It was clear there would be a revolution. The only question was how much blood the shah would be willing to spend to keep his power. To his credit, he decided not to.”

Instead, after almost four decades on the throne, the shah abdicated, fleeing in January, 1979. A month later, the final vestiges of his monarchy were dissolved; an Islamic republic under the Ayatollah Khomeini was subsequently installed.

“Most of my [Iranian] friends were forced into exile,” Mr. George said.

As for the current Iranian government’s program to develop a nuclear capability, Mr. George said it’s not clear to him whether, barring military action by Israel or the United States, the mullahs will proceed to weaponize a warhead.

“I think there’s one faction that desperately wants to, but there’s another one that thinks they don’t need to,” he said. “So I think they are keeping both options open and proceedings on both paths, to the extent they can, rather cautiously.”

Mr. George said he sides with what he calls a majority of senior defence officials – in Israel and elsewhere – in opposing a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. “They think it would be crazy. They can’t do what they did in Iraq” – a reference to the 1981 Israeli attack on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak, then under construction.

Closing the Canadian embassy in Tehran, he says, puts us “on the wrong side of the fence when contemplating what happens between now and the U.S. election [in November]. “That’s the gap, the window, that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has to strike Iran. The way I read it, it suggests Canada has some inside information that Netanyahu will use that window, and Mr. Harper doesn’t want Canadian diplomats in the way.”

The Canadian decision simply “fuels speculation about a possible attack, adds to the tension and the likelihood that something will happen. I think it was the wrong move for that reason.”

In retirement, Mr. George helped found the San Francisco-based Threshold Foundation for philanthropy and served for 20 years as president of the Sadat Peace Foundation.

In the latter role, he befriended Israeli President Shimon Peres, who has spoken out strongly against an Israeli strike. “The majority opinion in Israel is against using this opportunity to strike,” Mr. George maintains. “They have no assurance America would back them up militarily.”

Addressing the assassination this week of the American ambassador in Libya, Mr. George said the United States should respond “by not responding. I don’t think a great power needs to react to every incident. It only makes it worse and plays into the hands of those who want reaction.”

As for the broader Islamic upheaval now coursing through the region, Mr. George said “the key to the situation is still in Egypt. It’s the most important player in the Arab Spring. We should be supporting the present regime cautiously, even though they are the Muslim Brotherhood. I think the Americans have played it rather well, even though [Barack] Obama’s policy, as laid out in his Cairo speech a few years ago, has not paid any real dividends. But it was time for [Hosni] Mubarak to go.”

Mr. George predicts that Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad will likely not last much longer. “But after him, it won’t be easy, including for the Christian minority there.”

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