“Mad Mullahs” or Partisan Politics? Why the Harper Government Severed Ties With Iran (Part 1)

Posted By December 5, 2018 No Comments

The below is Part One of Two of one of the winning essays from our inaugural “Langley Hope Academic Excellence in Security and Defence Commentary Award Programme.” Stay tuned in the coming weeks for the publication of more winning and noteworthy submissions.

On 7 September 2012, Canada’s then-foreign affairs minister John Baird announced that Canada had formally ceased all diplomatic relations with a key regional power in the Middle East—Iran.[1] Labelling the country as “the most significant threat to global peace and security,” the Harper government closed the Canadian embassy in Tehran, declared all Iranian diplomats in Ottawa personae non gratae, and designated Iran as an official state sponsor of terrorism under the State Immunity Act and the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act.[2] Indeed, Canada had shut its mission in Tehran before—most notably in 1980 for eight years following the 1979 Iran hostage crisis—and Iran has not had a Canadian ambassador since 2007. The scope of this hostile approach taken towards Iran by the Harper government, however, was unprecedented even amongst Canada’s closest allies and had immediate consequences on both international and domestic fronts. Canada has yet to resume diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic and given the increasing geopolitical and geostrategic role of Iran in the Middle East today, the importance of this foreign policy—or lack thereof—has risen significantly.

Alas, there remains little or no academic work on the 2012 decision that seeks to examine the reasons why the Harper government chose to adopt this policy and the implications it has since yielded. This should not be a surprise, though, as this gap in the literature represents a larger gap in the study of Canadian foreign policy; its policies in the Middle East are ‘understudied’ compared to other regions, such as Europe or Asia.[3] As such, an analysis of this decision is needed as it will provide a better understanding of the decision-making processes that may have been used to rationalize both prior and subsequent foreign policy decisions during the Harper government’s two-term tenure. The purpose of this research paper is to do just this. More precisely, this paper asks the question: Why did the Harper government choose to sever all diplomatic ties with Iran? In other words, what factors shaped Prime Minister Harper’s decision-making process behind the adoption of this hostile and anomalous foreign policy? In doing so, this paper will also explore the implications it has since had on Canadian interests and policy in Iran and the Middle East.

To do these tasks, I have divided the paper into three sections. I will begin by offering a brief survey of Canada’s diplomatic relationship with Iran to place the Harper government’s decision in historical perspective—an essential task before unpacking the ‘why’ question. I will then analyze and evaluate each of the six reasons Baird cited to justify severing relations with Iran. These reasons include: (1) Iran’s support and military assistance to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria; (2) the country’s refusal to comply with United Nations’ (UN) resolutions with regards to its nuclear program; (3) Iran’s repeated threats towards the existence of Israel, including its engagement “in racist anti-Semitic rhetoric, and incitement to genocide”;[4] (4) the human rights atrocities that take place under the Iranian regime; (5) its sheltering and material support of terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and; (6) the country’s neglect to guarantee the protection of foreign diplomatic personnel as set out in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.[5]

The third and most important section will offer a critical reflection of this decision and the ways in which it was implemented, including the legislative obstacles the Harper government used to list Iran as an official state sponsor of terrorism. While this section will discuss some of the decision’s repercussions facing the current Trudeau government, it will not propose policy prescription as to how these issues should be mended; this falls outside the scope of my research. Instead, I argue that while each of the six factors the Harper government used to sever diplomatic ties with Iran indeed called for Canadian condemnation, and thus may have appeared to warrant this hostile foreign policy—albeit some more than others—there were calculated partisan and electoral factors that influenced Harper’s decision-making process. The six justifications served as a strategic way—protected by a strong moral safeguard—to advance a partisan foreign policy agenda legislatively designed to handcuff any future Canadian government from resuming international relations with the Islamic Republic despite Canadian interests in Tehran.

Canada–Iran relations

The history of Canada’s bilateral relationship with Iran is neither smooth nor straightforward. While at times the relationship has been marked by economic and commercial success, it has also suffered through lapses of diplomatic tension and political enmity. It is therefore important to first offer a brief summary of this sixty-three-year-old relationship to establish context for the six factors Baird used in the 2012 decision. Without this information, one cannot reasonably analyze this piece of foreign policy and the decision-making process behind it.

Diplomatic relations between Canada and the Islamic Republic began in 1955, and for the first three decades of this relationship, significant commercial success thrived between the two sides as nearly one thousand Canadian citizens worked inside of Iran during this period.[6] But what seemed like promising and prosperous diplomacy quickly deteriorated during the 1979 Iranian revolution when the Canadian embassy in Tehran sheltered six American diplomats after the U.S. embassy was taken over by Iranian students and protesters. As a safety measure to prevent retaliation from the new Ruhollah Khomeini regime for aiding in their rescue, Canada closed its mission for eight years until 1988, and Iran quickly followed suit. In fact, the two countries did not exchange formal ambassadors until 1996, sixteen years after the rescue operation.

This event is important to the analysis in this paper for two key reasons. First, it was the only time Canada had closed its embassy in Tehran; and second, diplomatic relations between the two countries still existed despite the closure. In fact, formal ties were never severed by any of the four Canadian governments between 1980 to 1988. This is in sharp contrast to the 2012 decision, as it marked the first time Canada had officially ceased all diplomatic ties with Iran, illustrating the hostile and unprecedented nature of the Harper government’s approach.

While both countries began to put mutual economic gains over past political strife following the re-establishment of relations in the 1990s, this was only a temporary solution. In June 2003, Zahra Kazemi—an Iranian–Canadian freelance photographer—was arrested by Iranian officials for photographing largescale student demonstrations across Tehran. On 11 July 2003, nineteen days following her arrest and relocation to Evin prison—notoriously known as Iran’s political prison—Kazemi died from what the Iranian regime reported was a stroke. However, after pressure from the Canadian government to investigate her death further, it was revealed that Kazemi’s body showed severe signs of torture, beating, and rape, likely committed by the Evin prison staff.[7] The importance of this case in the Canadian–Iranian relationship cannot be overlooked, as it is still used today—albeit not as much as it should—as a key talking point for Canada’s continued condemnation of the human rights abuses that take place in Iran.

In the years leading to 2012, relations between the two countries remained poor due to a series of economic sanctions laid out in 2010 by the Canadian government as part of its allies’ efforts to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions. However, the Harper government’s decision to cease all diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic came as a watershed in Canada’s approach towards the regime. Not only did Canada permanently close its embassy, it also designated Iran as an official state sponsor of terrorism under the State Immunity Act and the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act. As the third section will discuss, the significance of these two pieces of legislation is multifaceted, fundamentally strategic, and serves as a salient calculation behind Harper’s decision-making process. Nonetheless, the diplomatic relationship between Canada and Iran shared moments of both economic stability and political volatility leading up to the 2012 decision.

Harper’s six factors

As was mentioned, this section will explain each of the six factors Baird cited to rationalize this foreign policy, particularly from the perspective of Prime Minister Harper. Doing so will help us better understand how the Harper government dealt with Iran leading up to the decision, as well as why it chose this hostile approach. My goal is to evaluate the validity of these factors—or in other terms, if they made reasonable sense—in addition to analyzing their significance towards Harper’s decision-making process.

Iran–Syria relations

The first factor behind the decision to sever ties with Iran was its “increasing military assistance to the Assad regime.”[8] For nearly a year and a half prior to the September 2012 decision, Syria was—and continues to still be—in the midst of a devastating civil war between the al-Assad regime and the Syrian people, as well as various armed factions and terrorist organizations who vie for power. What started as Syria’s ‘Arab Spring’ quickly turned into a game of geopolitical chess, and in this game, specifically on the side of the al-Assad regime, Iran has been its key strategic partner. In fact, the Islamic Republic is Syria’s closest and oldest ally in the Arab world, if not the entire world. Dating back to Iran’s 1979 revolution, the two countries have forged a mutual relationship of cooperation and partnership rooted in shared interests (e.g., defeating Israel and the United States), religion (e.g., al-Assad’s Alawite background and Iran’s state religion of Shi’a Islam), and regional goals—especially during times of war.[9]

In the context of the Syrian Civil War, Tehran deployed more than a thousand Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and regular army forces to Syria to help fight against the regime’s opposition, and provided security personnel, technicians, equipment, and intelligence to the Syrian Armed Forces.[10] In the mind of Prime Minister Harper and Canada’s Western and European allies, this support warranted legitimate condemnation for both humanitarian and geostrategic reasons. First, the targeted assaults on Syrian civilians by Iranian-backed al-Assad forces was unacceptable and certain measures had to be implemented to ensure such atrocities did not continue. Second, on a geostrategic level, allowing Iran to extend its hand into the political theatre of neighbouring countries—whether it was to prop up friendly regimes or overthrow its foes—did not serve Canada’s or its allies’ interests in the Middle East. In turn, it made sense for the Harper government to speak out and condemn the Iranian regime, however, it is unclear how the severing of diplomatic ties was able to improve these humanitarian and geostrategic concerns. In any case, this first factor is significant as it represents a strong shift in the emphasis of morality in the Harper government’s decision-making process. As it will soon be clear, this sense of morality acted as a safeguard for defending the decision despite other calculated intentions.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions

The second factor Baird cited was Iran’s “refusal to comply with United Nations’ resolutions pertaining to its nuclear program.”[11] Prior to 2012, the status of Iran’s nuclear ambitions was worrisome and uncertain at best, evoking anxiety for not only Canada and its allies, but also for the rest of the world. Despite international pressure, Iran’s nuclear program continued to evolve without much reorientation or transparency towards its progress. For the sake of clarity, however, it is best to begin in 2003 when Iran agreed to enter negotiations with the EU–3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) to avoid interaction with the United Nations Security Council about its nuclear facilities.[12]

From these negotiations, the Islamic Republic signed (though never ratified) the Additional Protocol in cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This protocol was designed to broaden the capabilities of IAEA’s verification process into the peaceful use of nuclear materials.[13] Moreover, Iran agreed to temporarily suspend its conversion and enrichment activities—an unprecedented step towards the country’s de-nuclearization. Despite this agreement, however, Iran continued to produce centrifuge components and carried out small-scale conversion experiments in the years following.[14] In response, many Western and European countries threatened to impose new sanctions on Iran, but at no success. The Islamic Republic resumed all uranium conversion activities and increased its enrichment percentage, before pulling out of the Additional Protocol in 2005.[15]

Leading up to the Harper government’s decision in 2012, the UN and its Western and European members had imposed several resolutions and economic sanctions aimed at halting Iran’s nuclear development—most notably UN Security Council Resolution 1929 and the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, respectively. Yet Tehran continuously ignored these measures and began to further develop its nuclear program. It is for this reason that the government believed Iran’s behaviour warranted a strong reaction from Canada and its allies; both the international and regional balance-of-power consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran were too detrimental. As such, this second factor did make reasonable sense for the Harper government to speak out against Iran, though severing ties with the country and closing its embassy was hardly a winning solution.

Iran–Israel relations

There is no doubt that Iran is one of the harshest enemies of Israel and a constant critic of its presence in the Middle East. As Baird said, Iran does in fact “routinely threaten the existence of the state of Israel and engages in racist anti-Semitic rhetoric, and incitement to genocide.”[16] One must only look at the past rhetoric of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, as well as former President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to better understand this truth. For instance, in front of thousands of Muslim worshippers in Tehran in late 2000, Khamenei called Israel a “cancerous tumor of a state” that should be “removed from the [Middle East] region.”[17] In 2005, Ahmadinejad described Israel as a “disgraceful blot” that should be “wiped off the face of the earth” at a conference titled ‘The World Without Zionism’.[18]

Moreover, the Islamic Republic has supported several terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and Hamas to engage in attacks against Israel and its citizens.[19] To offer a few examples, Jihad al-Islami—a Lebanese Shi’a militia supported by Iran and the IRGC—carried out a suicide bombing attack on the Israeli embassy in Argentina in March 1992. Twenty-nine civilians were killed and over 240 were injured because of the attack.[20] Two years later, Hezbollah detonated a six-hundred-pound suicide bomb in an Argentinian Jewish Community Centre (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina), killing eighty-five and injuring hundreds more.[21]

While many similar instances exist, the point is that Iran is no friend of Israel, and Israel understands the threat the Islamic Republic poses to its national security. Considering Canada’s longstanding diplomatic, commercial, and cultural relationship with Israel (especially since the Harper government was first elected in 2006), it is no surprise that this factor was used to justify severing relations with Iran. In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the Harper government’s decision, calling it a courageous act of leadership that “must serve as an example to the international community [as regards to] moral standards and international responsibility.”[22] To this end, although Israel’s largest and strongest ally, the United States, did not take such drastic measures towards Iran in response to its anti-Israeli behaviour, this factor did warrant Canada’s criticism.