On September 8, Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and its Foreign Minister, John Baird, participated in an Asia Pacific Co-operation (APEC) summit. During a news conference in the Russian city of Vladivostok where the summit took place, Baird unexpectedly announced the severance of diplomatic relations with Iran. Canada’s announcement almost instantaneously topped headlines and resonated throughout the world as many asked, “Why did the Canadian government suddenly cut its relations with Tehran now, and not earlier?” This question deserves a convincing answer because, as Ray Boisvert, the former Assistant Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, says, that Canada's move was unprecedented since such moves “usually happens in very severe conditions.”
Mr. Baird listed a host of reasons that prompted the decision. According to Baird, the main reason for this decision was the extant concern “for the safety of the men and women working at the Canadian mission.” He cited the attack on the British Embassy in Tehran as evidence that Canada’s diplomats were in danger in Tehran. However, the storming of the UK embassy happened in November 2011. Even in the aftermath of that incident, the British Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, told the BBC that the U.K.'s response "doesn't mean we're cutting off all diplomatic relations with Iran.” Canada’s actions represent more than following another country’s example.
Mr. Baird also noted other issues with the Iranian government such as human rights violations, threatening of the existence of Israel, and sponsoring terrorism as motivating catalysts for Canada's cleaved ties with Iran. But these are all old grievances and do not justify such a surprising and dramatic decision.
In fact, from the seizure of the American Embassy in 1979, during which Canada helped six American diplomats escape from Iran, to the tragic death of Ms. Zahra Kazemi, a journalist with dual Canadian-Iranian citizenship who was killed in custody in Iran in 2003, there have been many moments during which cutting ties with Iran might have been convincingly justified. Canada’s move was surely not impetuous. Its stance is only comprehensible within the context of the spiraling conflict between the Western-Israeli alliance and Iran.
As previously discussed, the recent NAM summit’s outcome was a blow to the United States’ long-held position that the Iranian government was an isolated regime, and that US policies of imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran reflected the demand of the international community. The NAM summit supported Iran and criticized the American-led attempt to isolate and unilaterally punish that country.
Also, a number of developments during the NAM summit left an inauspicious situation for Israel. One hundred eighteen nations took a “no reaction position” during the Iranian leader’s speech at opening ceremonies of the NAM summit during which he fiercely attacked Israel. The summit supported Palestinians that question the position of Israel’s current government with regard to the Palestinians’ rights of statehood. And lastly, Iran’s new international status as Chairman of the NAM for the next three years could serve as a distraction to the international community from what Israel claims as “Iran’s threat,” undermining its efforts in isolating Iran.
The West and Israel needed a move to neutralize the NAM summit’s outcome, reiterating that Iran is not out of isolation - something to bring “Iran’s threat” back into the media limelight. James Devine, a Canadian Iran expert says the NAM summit “was not an overwhelming success for Iran but demonstrated they are not as isolated as the West would hope.” Devine adds that Canada may be trying to send “a symbolic message to Iran after the NAM meeting that they should not conclude that their isolation is over or that they can escape western pressure.”
From the 1950s, when Lester Pearson, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, became the Secretary of State for External Affairs (later the Canadian Prime Minister), until 2003, Canada’s foreign policy was predominantly characterized by supporting peace and peacekeeping. In 2003, after Liberal leader Paul Martin succeeded Jean Chretien, Canada’s foreign policy tilted toward hard-right in the hope of gaining a “world power” status. Finally, by Stephen Harper, leader of the newly constituted conservative party, becoming Canada’s prime minister in February 2006, the shift in Canada’s domestic and foreign policy was complete.
During Jean Chretien, the Liberal Prime Minister of Canada‘s tenure, Harper attacked the Canadian Prime Minister saying, “downright hostility to the United States, anti-Americanism, has come to characterize other dimensions of Canadian policy.” Against 71 percent of Canadians who supported Jean Chretien’s government’s decision to stay out of Iraq’s war, Harper attacked the Liberal government as “gutless and juvenile.”
Another development in Canada’s foreign policy after the emergence of Harper was the transformation of the country’s policy towards Israel. In 2009, “Canada stood alone before a United Nations human rights council…the only one among 47 nations to oppose a motion condemning the Israeli military offensive in Gaza.” Toronto Star, Canada’s most-read newspaper, wrote, “observers say Ottawa's unwavering support of Israel in the current conflict…is a break from more neutral positions of the past.”
In October 2010, Canada lost to Portugal in the vote for a seat at the Security Council. Observers attributed Canada’s loss to its pro-Israel policy at the UN. Reacting to his critics, Harper maintained, “as long as I am prime minister, whether it is at the UN or the Francophonie or anywhere else, Canada will take that stand, whatever the cost.”
The West’s US-led official position with regard to Iran’s nuclear issue is, “applying pressure in pursuit of constructive engagement, and a negotiated solution.” Taking this policy at face value, Canada could play a preeminent constructive role as a peacemaker to bring the West-Iran conflict over Iran’s nuclear program to a peaceful resolution. Canada’s current stance only serves to escalate the conflict.
The least regarded issue is that without a peaceful agreement, the shaky and unstable status quo is manifestly unsustainable. On the other side of the coin is a war which is unnecessary, immoral, and irrational. In the current situation, fraught with volatility, the lack of any negotiated solution will result in an inadvertent, if not planned, war. The material and human costs of such a war are ineffable. To avoid such a disaster, the two sides should talk. As Anthony Cordesman, leading expert in the Center for Strategic and International Studies contends, “there are times when the best way to prevent war is to clearly communicate that it is possible.”
So far, unfortunately, both sides seem delusional. The West is confident that the Iranian leadership is rational, and therefore, will react favorably to sanctions, while the leadership of the Islamic Republic firmly believes that Iran’s problems are like “problems of a group of climbers who are continuously moving towards the peak, but the West is like a bus that is trapped under an avalanche”.
This article is part of Insider & Insight, a new AIC program aimed at providing different perspectives and analyses on key developments in US-Iran relations. The commentary and opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official position of American Iranian Council.
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