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Iranian Canadians rally in support of Ottawa’s decision to close its embassy in Iran.SEAN KILPATRICK/The Canadian Press

The Harper government – which makes no secret of its strong support for Israel – has come under severe criticism from many circles for its decision to shut the Canadian embassy in Iran. But Canadian diplomats who were on the ground in Tehran supported the move.

They had "known this was coming for a long time," said a Canadian official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment.

"If Iran had been attacked [by Israel or the United States]" people in the mission knew they "would likely have been taken hostage," the official said. And to every diplomat in the mission, he added, "the threat was very real."

Canadian officials cited a range of reasons for the extraordinary decision to expel all Iranian diplomats from Ottawa and close the mission in Tehran, chief among them the threat to the security of Canadian personnel, particularly if Israel or the United States should launch an attack on Iran in an effort to eliminate Tehran's alleged nuclear-weapons program.

"With no American embassy in Tehran and the British embassy closed [since an attack on it in November] the next most likely target for retaliation would have been the Canadians," said a former government official with experience in Iran.

That is why, these officials say, there was no objection from the Canadian diplomats when the order to evacuate came down, especially since the mission was serving no practical purpose anyway.

While critics argue that the closing of the embassy means there will be no more contact with the Iranian regime, Canada has had no formal communication with Iran for a long time.

"There is no relationship with Iran," insisted one official with knowledge of the situation on the ground in Tehran. "There's been no real relationship since the Canadian ambassador was expelled" in 2007, he added.

This admission will come as a surprise to the families of Canadian citizens now on death row in Iran, who have said they believed Canadian diplomats have been in contact with Iranian authorities on their relatives' behalf.

The expulsion in 2007 came after Canada rejected the two people Iran had successively nominated to be ambassador to Ottawa – both had apparently been involved in seizing the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and taking its diplomats hostage. Since 2007, each country's mission has been headed, at Iran's insistence, by a chargé d'affaires, rather than an ambassador, and relations have been drastically circumscribed.

The one hesitation over last week's closing of the embassy, an official said, was over the fate of its Iranian staff. Beyond economic hardship, those local employees may face personal harassment as well.

The official said he felt lousy about this but "there was nothing we could do."

The employees learned that the embassy was closed from a BBC report – after the doors were locked and the Canadian diplomats safely out of the country.

Iran has blasted the government of Stephen Harper as extremist following the embassy closing and the expulsion of Iran's diplomats. It has also threatened retaliation. Even so, Hasan Sobhaninia a member of Iran's parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, acknowledged Monday there "is the possibility" of other countries following Ottawa's lead.

In an interview with the Iranian parliamentary website, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Canada was "irrational and unjustified" in its decision to cut diplomatic ties. He described the Harper government as "neo-conservative extremist" and said it was "boundlessly defending international Zionism."

But Canada has experienced threats in Iran before.

In 2009, said Michel de Salaberry, a former Canadian ambassador who returned as chargé d'affaires that year, the mission and its personnel came under "credible threats" from the Revolutionary Guards' volunteer militia force known as the basij. The threats came following an interview Mr. Harper gave the Wall Street Journal in which he described the Iranian regime as "evil." The incident showed how quickly real threats can arise, Mr. de Salaberry said.

Meanwhile, the Iranian Mehr news agency on Monday reported that the decision of the country's parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, to cancel a planned trip to Quebec City in October was just the first act of retaliation against Canada that had been vowed on the weekend.

To those in Canada who had been lobbying for years for Ottawa to cut off diplomatic ties with Iran, the move to do so was a pleasant surprise.

"We've been pressing for the government to consider ratcheting up the efforts to compel Iranian compliance with their international obligations and the will of the international community," said Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. Among the measures sought were sanctions on Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards.

For their part, Iranian-Canadian activists have been asking Ottawa to expel Iranian diplomats since 2003, when Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kahzemi was killed in Iran, and they stepped up the efforts after the regime's crackdown on protesters following the 2009 presidential elections.

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