With the temporary closure of the Canadian embassy in Cairo, and the deaths of four Americans, including US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, in Benghazi, an examination of Canada’s decision to cease diplomatic relations with Iran last week has become all the more timely.

What was said

Canadian-Iranian relations have been deteriorating since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In 1980, Canada closed its embassy in Tehran for eight years, and did not re-exchange ambassadors until 1996. Canada recalled its ambassador once again in 2003, following the death of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian citizen in Iranian custody.

September 7, 2012 marks another juncture in this relationship, as Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced that, “Canada has closed its embassy in Iran, effective immediately,” consequently declaring all remaining Iranian diplomats in Canada “personae non gratae” and instructing them to leave within five days.

Baird added that “Canada views the government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today. Moreover, the Iranian regime has shown blatant disregard for the Vienna Convention and its guarantee of protection for diplomatic personnel. Under the circumstances, Canada can no longer maintain a diplomatic presence in Iran.”

In a response addressing Baird’s statements, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast stated the move was a “continuation of anti-Iranian policies” and that “The current Canadian government led by (Prime Minister) Mr. Stephen Harper is known for its extremist policies in the field of foreign policy.”

Mehmanparast continued on to note that antagonistic measures taken by Canada against the Iranian people “such as the closure of the visa section of the Canadian Embassy in Tehran,” and the asset freeze leading to a “ban on the transfer of money to Iranian students in Canada,” reveal that the “hostile behavior of the current racist government in Canada in reality follows the policies dictated by the Zionists (Israel) and the British.”

Why now?

Canada’s last ambassador to Iran, John Mundy, wrote in the Globe and Mail, “Canada’s reasons for acting so suddenly are not convincing. Iran seems as surprised by our action as other countries are. In the absence of… concrete information the question remains, why have we taken this drastic action and in particular, why now?”

Mundy continued to add, “The government should explain how it sees a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue with Iran given that [it] believes further diplomacy to be futile…. Our policy towards Iran is the first time in decades that a Canadian prime minister has acted to reduce the diplomatic opportunities for peace during a crisis.”

Tony Burman, former head of Al Jazeera English, CBC News, and Professor of Journalism at Ryerson University, also commented on the decision. In a special to the Toronto Star, Burman asked readers “why would Canada indulge in a meaningless poke in the eye that will only be dismissed by Tehran and serve to push the Canadian government even further to the extremes of diplomatic irrelevance?”

During a Saturday interview on the CBC radio program The House, Baird re-emphasized that his “concern was for the safety of the men and women working at the Canadian mission,” but when asked by host Evan Solomon whether there was “something specific,” he conceded there was “not a direct threat” or an increased security risk.

“Unless Canadian diplomats were in imminent danger or federal officials had fresh evidence of substantial wrongdoings by Iranian diplomats in Canada,” there is little reason for the move, argues Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist quoted in the Toronto Star, who was held for 118 days in a Tehran prison in 2009.

Examining the rationale

Many western nations have been trying to isolate Iran for years, due to its continued development of a nuclear weapons program. In a recent interview, James Devine, Iran expert at Mount Allison University, told CBC News that in some part, the decision may be motivated by the recently well-attended Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit, which took place in Tehran last week.

The summit “was not an overwhelming success for Iran but demonstrated they are not as isolated as the West would hope.” Subsequently, Canada might be sending “a symbolic message to Iran after theNAM meeting that they should not conclude that their isolation is over or that they can escape western pressure,” added Devine later in that same CBC News interview.

When asked by CBC News to elaborate further, Devine correlates the withdrawal to Canada’s Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which lets victims sue pre-designated terrorist states for damages that have occurred as a result of an act of terrorism. During his statement, Baird officially declared Iran to be a terrorist state, paving the way for future legal action against the country.

In her portion of the interview with CBC News, Janice Stein, the Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, said she does “not believe Canada’s action was in response to any intelligence information about an imminent strike,” rather she sees the move as an “issue of security for diplomatic personnel in Tehran as the sanctions ramp up, and Canada’s remaining diplomatic personnel would be a prime target were crowds to turn hostile.”

The Globe and Mail adds that Canadian diplomats and Iranian officials have had little contact lately, and requests for information or consular access to Canadians have been regularly obstructed. According to a “government official,” this treatment “reduced the value of the diplomacy at an embassy with an annual budget of about $7-million.”

A wise move?

Mohamad Tavakoli, a history professor in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilisations at the University of Toronto, told Al-Jazeera that if Canada is interested in resolving key crises in the Middle East, such as those in Syria, then the timing could not be worse. Tavakoli went on to add that, “to deal with geopolitical situations, you don’t shut down dialogue and communication – you actually intensify dialogue and communication.”

Doug Saunders, Chief of the London-Based European Bureau of the Globe and Mail, and three-time National Newspaper Award winner said, “Closing an embassy is rarely done even in moments of hostility. By its very nature, it prevents the possibility of further relations with the country in question, good or bad, influential or ineffective… Once you’ve pulled the plug, you’re out of the game.”

Moreover, according to Burman’s special to the Toronto Star, contrary to the Canadian government’s statement on Friday, it is “unimaginable that its actions against Iran will affect that country’s policy regarding Syria or its nuclear program.”

While cutting diplomatic ties with Iran seems a relatively counter-effective method of facilitating alterations to that country’s policies, it has acted instead, not coincidentally, as a source of alignment with another country.

As Burman sees it in that Toronto Star special, “it is not surprising” that Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu “warmly welcomed” Canada’s actions by calling them “a bold decision, [a] moral step.”

Netanyahu went on to commend Prime Minster Stephen Harper’s “courageous act of leadership,” reinforcing earlier claims made by the National Post that Canada has become a “major ally of Israel under the Harper government.” An assertion solidified by Baird at a conference on January 30, 2012 when he said, “Israel has no greater friend in the world than Canada… We shall always be there for you, and in front of you.”

The effects on Iranian-Canadians

Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs is discouraging all Canadians from traveling to Iran, especially dual Iranian-Canadian citizens, as Tehran does not recognize this citizenship. According to Professor Tawakoni in Al-Jazeera, this means “The cost of travelling to Iran will be multiplied. The people who will end up paying for this will be Iranian-Canadians.”

Al-Jazeera adds that this diplomatic maneuvering will affect around 500,000 Iranian-Canadians living in Canada.

Also compromised are the cases of Hamid Ghassemi-Shall and Saeed Malekpour, two Iranian-Canadians on death row in Iran, whose lack of direct representation in the country will make further appeals for their release “difficult to do now,” Elizabeth Berton-Hunter, a spokesperson for Amnesty International, said to Al-Jazeera.

Since, according to Al-Jazeera, “the Canadian government, as a whole, has largely demonised Iran,” there is some concern regarding the long-term influence this may have on perceptions of Iranian-Canadians. Some disagree, such as rights activist Shadi Paveh, who, in a statement to Al-Jazeera, said, “I truly believe that the Canadians are the most tolerant… people in the world. I cannot see that all Iranians would be looked upon negatively in general.”

However, when discussing the rise of Islamophobia in the Western world with Al-Jazeera, Hamid Dabashi, Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, said he “can only imagine the impact of this sort of behaviour and the hate crimes it can condition and cause… Anytime diplomatic relations are severed, drums of war are raised louder, corrupt politicians and radical fanatics thrive, the rule of reason and sanity fails, and ordinary people on both sides of the divide suffer most.”