Five Canadian diplomats slipped out of Tehran at 5 a.m. on Friday, shuttering the embassy in a sudden, unilateral move to cut off all direct diplomatic ties with Iran.
The evacuation, accompanied by the expulsion of all Iranian diplomats from Canada, was the product of a calculation in Ottawa: that keeping Canadian diplomats there as dangers increase could no longer be justified, given that poor relations with Tehran already made it almost impossible for them to do useful work.
The possibility of an Israeli or U.S. military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities raised concerns that Canadian diplomats could be targeted for reprisals after an attack because of Ottawa's staunch support of Israel and tough stand on Iran. Britain closed its embassy after it was stormed last November by demonstrators whose actions the Iranian regime was believed to have sanctioned.
The government also worried the diplomats could be at risk as Ottawa ratchets up measures against Tehran – including declaring it a "state sponsor of terrorism" on Friday under a new law designed to help victims of terrorists.
Nonetheless, the abrupt severing of ties, a rare step, took many by surprise. Three diplomats had left in recent weeks, and five flew out early on Friday, the Muslim sabbath, amid concern about the response to Ottawa's move. Hours later, Ottawa announced that Iran's diplomats have five days to leave Canada.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, at the Asia-Pacific summit in Vladivostok, Russia, said the step was taken not only because of concerns for diplomats' safety, but in response to several issues – Iran's support for Syria's Assad regime, the "military dimension" of its nuclear program and its backing of terrorist groups.
"There's just a long list of reasons why we're coming to this decision," he said.
Canada has not had a full ambassador in Iran since 2007, after several disputes, leaving the embassy to a chargé d'affaires. Stephen Harper's Conservative government has been one of Tehran's harshest critics.
When asked why the government is taking the step now, Mr. Baird repeatedly said that Iran does not protect foreign diplomats, and cited security concerns. "We felt that it's simply no longer safe to have representatives of the government of Canada in Tehran," he said.
If there has been a threat, "It's not just a theoretical risk," said Canada's last full ambassador to Tehran, John Mundy. "Iran has a very bad track record about how it deals with diplomats from countries it doesn't like," he said. He noted Canada's embassy is on a busy street, while the British embassy stormed last year was a fortified compound.
But Mr. Mundy said the government should tell Canadians if there has been a threat or an incident. Cutting off diplomatic ties, he warned, is a "grave step" that's not easily repaired – and now Canada cannot have any dialogue with Iran, provide consular services to Canadians in distress or gather its own analysis of what is happening there.
However, government sources told The Globe and Mail that Canadian diplomats in Iran had almost no contact for years with Iranian officials, who obstructed requests for information or consular access to Canadians. That reduced the value of the diplomacy at an embassy with an annual budget of about $7-million, an official said.
The sources indicated no particular incident triggered concerns for the safety of Canadian diplomats, just a variety of factors that made Ottawa decide it no longer wanted to bear the risk.
The hot rhetoric about Iran's nuclear program raises the possibility of an Israeli strike in the near future, one source said, leading to real concerns that diplomats from Canada, a vocal supporter of Israel, could face reprisals. There was no suggestion Ottawa received warning of an attack, but the sources indicated the government wanted Canadian diplomats out before any strike.
In addition, there were concerns that new pressure tactics Ottawa has employed against Iran could increase the risk to Canadian diplomats.
A law passed on March 13, the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, calls for the government to lift the immunity of countries deemed to be state sponsors of terrorism, so that in theory, Canadian victims of terrorist attacks could sue those countries for damages. The law required that the initial list of countries that Canada deems sponsors of terrorism be issued within six months – by next Thursday.