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Iran's ambassador to the European Union Aliasghar Khaji addresses a news conference in Brussels May 14, 2008. Khaji presented a package of proposals on international security to the European Union. (Francois Lenoir/REUTERS)
Iran's ambassador to the European Union Aliasghar Khaji addresses a news conference in Brussels May 14, 2008. Khaji presented a package of proposals on international security to the European Union. (Francois Lenoir/REUTERS)

DIPLOMACY

Visa flap fans Canada-Iran tensions Add to ...

The United States remains the Great Satan. Israel, rarely mentioned by name, is dubbed the “Zionist entity.” And in the view of Tehran – where Canada was once regarded as an independent voice, perhaps even an honest broker – the new Conservative government in Ottawa is seen as a toadying, out-of-step, Bush-era belligerent.

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That’s the official view here, voiced by Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Asghar Khaji, the Islamic Republic’s top official overseeing relations with Europe and the Americas. His message was blunt: The strident, official Canadian rhetoric and accusations about Iran are ill-founded, unproductive and probably not shared by most Canadians.

And now, Mr. Khaji, added, Ottawa has imposed petty inconvenience to its hostile policy, forcing Iranians to travel to Turkey to get visas to Canada.

In a rare interview, over sweet tea and preceded by amiable small talk, Mr. Khaji spoke plainly. “It seems your government has completely failed to understand the passage of time, it's still living in the Bush era,” even as the U.S. government has moved on under President Barack Obama, he said.

Meanwhile, he added, “Canada is still following in the Bush footsteps and remains under the influence of the Zionist regime.”

The stately Foreign Ministry building, which shares a quiet enclave called the National Garden in central Tehran with several museums, is cocooned from the chaos and cacophony of downtown traffic. Mr. Khaji, in his elegant wood-panelled office, seemed saddened, rather than angered, by the rough relations with Canada. He suggested Canada's position was damaging its once-proud reputation for peacekeeping, development assistance and international mediation.

Like some critics in Canada, Mr. Khaji said that Ottawa’s first-ever failure to win one of the rotating seats on the United Nations Security Council two years ago was because the Harper government had alienated much of the Muslim world with its increasingly pro-Israel positions.

Not since the really hostile post-revolutionary days, when Ottawa gave fake passports to American diplomats so they could flee Tehran in 1980, have Canada-Iranian relations been so testy.

Harsh accusations from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and even nastier barbs from Foreign Minister John Baird, who compared Israeli fears about the Islamic regime in Tehran to those over the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany, have soured relations.

While the Conservative government’s unflinching support of Israel has been warmly welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, especially given his own rocky relationship with Mr. Obama, the Harper government's pro-Israeli shift has also been closely tracked in Tehran.

Earlier this spring, Mr. Harper called Iran “the world’s most serious threat to international peace and security” – a stand the Tehran government’s top diplomat in Ottawa, Shaekh Hassani, promptly dismissed as “uninformed, undocumented and inflammatory.”

Canada’s government, he added, is out of step with history and out of touch with the reality that Iran is both a regional power and a force for peace and stability in the Middle East.

The gaping, seemingly irreconcilable gulf reflects a deep mutual hostility that plays out mostly in petty spats.

The latest brouhaha is over visas. Canada is home to between 200,000 (according to Ottawa) and 400,000 (according to Tehran) Iranian-Canadians. It’s one of the largest Iranian diasporas, so significant that Iranians jokingly refer to Canada’s largest city as “Tehranto.”

Ottawa has just stopped issuing visas in Tehran, meaning Iranians wanting to visit Canada must go to Ankara in neighbouring Turkey to get a visa. The decision is portrayed by Ottawa as a simple cost-cutting measure since Ankara has become the regional centre for visa issuance not just for Iran but also for Syria and other countries. And, anyway, according to Canadian officials, Tehran irritatingly refused to allow temporary increases of Canadian consular officers to be sent to Iran to cope with the huge surge in demand twice a year, at Nowruz, the Iranian New Year in the spring, and during the summer.

But Iranians, even those entirely unconnected with the government, regard Ottawa's moves as petty and self-defeating. “Why should I have to go to Ankara to get a visa,” said a tour guide in Tehran whose had planned to lead a well-heeled group of Iranians on a 14-day trip to Canada this summer. He won’t. The travel agency cancelled the trip.

Mr. Khaji accuses Ottawa of lying about the need to save money. “The cost-saving claim isn't truthful,” he said, noting that Canada charges high fees for visas and that the number of Iranians visiting and studying in Canada will drop sharply if Iranians are forced to make a second trip, to Ankara, to get a visa. But the larger point, he says, is that the Harper government is deliberately trying to sever the diaspora “bridge that connects the two nations.”

Canadian-Iranian relations have waxed and waned since the American embassy hostage crisis of 1979-1980 when then-ambassador Ken Taylor and other Canadian diplomats abruptly left Tehran with the six U.S. diplomats they had harboured. At the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, a thin blue line of Canadian peacekeepers deployed along an 800-kilometre ceasefire line and the embassy reopened. For a few heady months, there was talk of direct air links and trade boomed.

It didn't last. Today, annual two-way trade is less than $200-million, equivalent to a few hours’ worth of U.S.-Canada trade.

Follow on Twitter: @PaulKoring

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