“Mad Mullahs” or Partisan Politics? Why the Harper Government Severed Ties with Iran (Part 2)

Posted By December 7, 2018 No Comments

The below is Part Two 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.

Human rights abuses

The fourth reason used by the Harper government was Iran’s atrocious record of human rights abuses. Constantly ranked among the world’s worst violators of civil liberties and political rights, Iran made no effort to guarantee basic freedoms to its citizens prior to 2012, despite demands from Western and European countries, international organizations, human rights watchdogs, and various non-governmental organizations. To quantify this human rights crisis, in 2011 alone, it was estimated that nearly six-hundred executions took place.[1] Of this number, the majority were tied to drug-related offences, and the public hangings of political prisoners were not an uncommon occurrence either. This does not include the dismal treatment of religious and ethnic minority groups in Iran, such as its Sunni or Baha’i population, nor does it include the violent suppression of Iranian citizens who speak out against the regime.[2]

Although the validity of this factor is indisputable, it does stand out as the most notable instance of Harper’s emphasis on morality in this decision-making process. The significance of this moral compass will be outlined in the next section, however in the broadest sense it served as a strategic safeguard for both the decision itself and for the Conservative Party should a future government try to resume diplomatic relations with Iran. Nonetheless, the human rights abuses that took place under the Iranian regime certainly made the decision-making process to sever bilateral ties much easier from Prime Minister Harper’s perspective.

Sponsor of terrorism

The sponsorship and material support of terrorist and militant groups across the Middle East has been a salient part of Iran’s foreign policy since the 1979 revolution. Namely, the Islamic Republic holds close relations with the Lebanese Hezbollah, PIJ, Hamas, and other militant organizations in countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.[3] Iran benefits from these relationships in various ways as these groups have proven to be capable of undermining and depleting regional threats, extending Iran’s sphere of influence into neighbouring Gulf countries, and deterring foreign countries, such as the United States, from trying to stop these activities.[4] For perspective, Iran provides one hundred million dollars (USD) to Hezbollah annually, and helps arm, train, and shelter its members on a day-to-day basis.[5] And although the goal of Hezbollah is largely focused on regional affairs and not the “far enemy,” the organization is still capable of reaching Western targets, as well as the ability to strike Western assets in the Middle East.

It is for these reasons that the Harper government chose to include this factor in its decision-making process, as the 2012 policy was framed as a symbolic way of disapproving Iran’s actions. What is more, this factor allowed Canada to list the Islamic Republic as a state sponsor of terrorism under the State Immunity Act and the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act. However, the threat of Hezbollah to Canada’s national security prerogatives is much less compared to some of its closest allies, yet Canada chose to adopt the most hostile approach towards Iran. Indeed, the country’s support for terrorist organizations was a significant issue that had to be condemned, but severing diplomatic ties was counterproductive towards mitigating this issue.

Security of diplomats

The last factor Baird cited best reveals the safeguard of morality built into the 2012 policy. Using the 1979 hostage crisis as an example (despite the thirty-three years that had passed), the Harper government believed that closing the Canadian embassy in Tehran would ensure the security and safety of Canada’s foreign service officers in Tehran. This was because, according to Baird, “the Iranian regime [had] shown blatant disregard for the Vienna Convention and its guarantee of protection for diplomatic personnel.”[6] Moreover, in an interview with the CBC, Baird explained that “the mission in Tehran [was] not one of the safest we had,” adding that “it faces a busy road and it could be overrun pretty quickly.”[7]

Iranian protesters stormed the British embassy one year prior in November 2011, resulting in smashed windows, ransacked offices, and burned documents, however the Canadian embassy has never been illegally entered by regime forces or its citizens. Contrarily, the Iranian embassy in Ottawa has been attacked more times—most notably in 1992 by a group of Iranian–Canadian supporters of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq carrying iron bars and sledgehammers. They assaulted the Iranian ambassador, injured six embassy staff, and caused extensive damage to the interior of the building.[8] Furthermore, even after the British embassy incident, the Cameron government did not sever diplomatic relations with Iran, but instead responded with increased economic sanctions and only temporarily suspended its mission. As such, it is not clear why Canada chose to adopt a tougher approach towards Iran than either Britain or any of its allies.

Calculated intentions

So far, this paper has offered a brief survey of the Canada–Iran relationship and evaluated the six factors Baird used to justify the decision to sever ties with Iran. In this analysis, it was clear that while the six factors did indeed call for Canadian condemnation, it did not make sense for Canada to take the most hostile approach towards Iran out of its closest allies. Moreover, many of the factors seemed to share an emphasis on morality that helped guide this foreign policy. What this paper has not done, however, is unpack the alternate and calculated intention of the Harper government in its decision-making process that, in turn, helps explain why morality played a prevalent feature. Herein lies the purpose of this section, which is to offer a critical reflection of the 2012 decision and the ways in which it was implemented.

It is important to first review the key objectives of this foreign policy, or rather what it was supposed to achieve. As it should be with any foreign policy, the answer to this may seem obvious: the Harper government wanted to advance Canada’s national interests—in this case in the Middle East. A second answer could also be that the Canadian government wanted to help mend some, if not all, of the six justifications it had used. However, neither of these answers are sufficient in explaining Prime Minister Harper’s decision-making process. Not only did the 2012 decision go against Canada’s national interests in the region, the decision was fundamentally symbolic and had no real intention of forcing Iran to halt its nuclear activities or end its support of terrorist organizations.

By severing diplomatic ties with Iran in 2012, Canada objectively lost three key elements of its national interests in the Middle East. First, Canada forfeited its diplomatic channel of communication with an important regional power. This meant that Canada lost its way of talking to, negotiating, or working with Iranian officials to advance Canadian interests and values in the country. In addition, this made it impossible for Canadian authorities to defend its citizens who were sitting on death row in Iran, such as Homa Hoodfar, a Concordia professor who was detained in Evin prison at the time.[9] Second, Canada gave up its strategic and intelligence interests by closing its embassy in Tehran. This meant Canada no longer had its own ears and eyes on the ground—a necessity for intelligence gathering—and thus had to rely on the intelligence of other embassies. Lastly, Canada conceded its trade and commercial interests in Iran—one of the largest and growing markets in the Middle East. While the economic gains Canada receives from the Iranian market is trivial in comparison to other significant trading partners, such as the United States or China, this should not discount the inclusion of Canada’s commercial interests in this analysis.

Given the diplomatic, strategic, and commercial consequences of this decision, it is clear the goal was not to advance Canadian interests or to help solve the six factors Baird cited. Instead, Harper’s decision-making process appears to have been influenced by partisan and electoral calculations that were strategically designed to guarantee the perpetuation of this preferred Conservative foreign policy. To do so, the Harper government implemented this decision with two pieces of legislation to handcuff any future government from lifting these sanctions and resuming diplomatic ties with Iran. Specifically, it was the invocation of the State Immunity Act and the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act to list Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism that accomplished this goal.

However, before unpacking the significance of both pieces of legislation, it should be noted that there are two other factors that could have contributed to Harper’s decision-making process. The first is the vote purchasing argument: Prime Minister Harper exploited this decision to continue to swing the Canadian Jewish vote towards the Conservative Party. During the 2011 federal election, the Conservative candidates received fifty-two percent of the Jewish vote—a dramatic increase from previous elections.[10] It could therefore be argued that Harper’s decision to sever ties with Iran—Israel’s most prominent enemy—was a symbolic measure to double-down on Canada’s ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ policy with Israel and attract the Jewish vote. However, there are two issues with this argument which can lead us to believe it did not have a significant impact on Harper’s decision-making process. The first is that in 2011, Canadian Jews only represented one percent of Canada’s voting-eligible population.[11] So while a large majority of Jews did in fact vote for Harper in 2011, this number should not be conflated with its total electoral impact across the country. Second, the percentage of voting-eligible Canadian Muslims in 2011 tripled that of the Jewish percentage.[12] As such, if Prime Minister Harper looked to incorporate a vote purchasing factor into his decision-making process, he would have realized that the 2012 decision ran the risk of the Conservative Party losing votes, not gaining.

The second factor that could have also contributed to this decision-making process was the alleged actions and aggressive presence of the Iranian embassy in Ottawa. In July 2012, Iranian–Canadian protestors organized outside the Iranian embassy and accused one of its diplomats, Hamid Mohammadi, of attempting to spy on Canada’s Iranian community. One protestor claimed the embassy was offering five-hundred dollars to anyone willing to give information about Iranian–Canadians who have spoken out against the Iranian regime.[13] Moreover, a former Canadian Security Intelligence Service operative was quoted as saying “the [Iranian] embassy runs an infiltration operation under the guise of a cultural exchange program” in order recruit Iranian–Canadians to serve the Islamic Republic’s interests.[14] This sparked Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs (now Global Affairs Canada) to issue a warning to the Iranian embassy, though nothing more resulted publicly. While there is good reason to believe this factor had some influence on Harper’s decision-making process, it would only help explain the closure of the Iranian embassy—not the complete severance of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

It is for this reason that using the State Immunity Act and the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act to designate Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism reveals the most about the Harper government’s decision-making process. Although it seemed like a harmless and warranted step in the eyes of the Canadian public (and thus grossly overlooked), the calculated implications of invoking both Acts served as the underlying and most salient intention of cutting ties with Iran.

The first piece of legislation—the State Immunity Act—was passed in 1985 by the Mulroney government and was designed to grant foreign states immunity from the jurisdiction of Canadian courts. However, the Act was amended in March 2012 by the Harper government to allow the Governor in Council to create a list of states that it had reason to believe sponsored terrorism or terrorist organizations. The amendment also provided that states who were put on this list were “not immune from the jurisdiction of a court in proceedings against it for its support of terrorism.”[15] This amendment came on the same day the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act was passed by Harper’s majority government, which provides a mechanism for the victims of terrorism to sue it perpetrators and supporters, including the states listed under the State Immunity Act. In addition, the Act also grants the Canadian government the ability to seize the assets of foreign states in Canada (regardless of diplomatic immunity) in connection with a judgement against it.[16]

Six months later, the Harper government listed the Islamic Republic of Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism under both pieces of legislation, and its significance cannot be understated. By placing Iran on this list, Prime Minister Harper effectively checkmated any future government, regardless of political affiliation, from lifting these legal sanctions and resuming bilateral diplomatic relations with the country. In layman’s terms, this calculated move guaranteed the continuation of a partisan foreign policy agenda by making it politically impossible to reverse the decision. Indeed, it would be procedurally simple for any government to delist Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism and lift its sanction—this can be done during a cabinet’s biennial ministerial review. However, this would be political suicide, as delisting Iran would imply the sitting government does not believe the country sponsors terrorism. Not only would this be factually incorrect, it would expose the government to criticism that they are too tolerant of Iran’s ‘mad mullahs’.[17] Moreover, while it may be procedurally simple to delist Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, it would be a legally complex and burdensome task as it is unclear what would happen to the cases currently being tried against Iran under the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act.

The only other option then would be to re-engage with Iran while it is still on the list; neither the State Immunity Act nor the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act prevents Canada from having contact with Iranian authorities. But this too is politically explosive, as it would suggest the government is willing to conduct diplomacy with a regime that actively sponsors terrorism.[18] Although this critique is fundamentally misguided, as the goal of diplomacy should be to advance national interests in a foreign state regardless of morality or its shared values, the Harper government purposely—and to its credit, quite cleverly—entrenched the concept of morality in the 2012 decision to set a moral standard that could be used against any future government. This not only limits a government’s ability to resume ties with Tehran, but should a government decide to, it would play into the electoral hands of the Conservative Party as they would be seen as the morally superior party.

With these points in mind, there is a strong likelihood that the Harper government had calculated the implications of the State Immunity Act and the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act into its decision-making process behind severing ties with Iran. Not only does the timeline of the decision also lead to this conclusion (i.e., listing Iran as a sponsor of terrorism twenty-eight years after the United States, yet only six months after amending two significant pieces of legislation), but the unwonted shift towards morally-guided diplomacy was no accident either. Instead, the 2012 decision was a predetermined and strategic way of ensuring no other government would be able to resume ties with Iran, thus allowing for a significant partisan foreign policy to persist over time.


In conclusion, the goal of this research paper was to explain why the Harper government chose to sever ties with Iran in 2012. I made the case that there were certain calculated factors that influenced Harper’s decision-making process to handcuff any future Canadian government from restoring international relations with the Islamic Republic. Of these factors, the most salient was the way in which the decision was implemented, namely by the two pieces of legislation—the State Immunity Act and the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act—that makes it politically impossible to reverse this partisan foreign policy. Moreover, it was revealed that many of the factors Baird used to rationalize this decision were strategically guided by a strong moral compass to make any reversal of the policy benefit the Conservative Party in the polls.

Indeed, there are two alternative factors that could have helped influence this decision as well, but the first—the vote purchasing argument—is logically incoherent, and the second—the intelligence threat of Iran’s embassy in Ottawa—can only explain why the Harper government closed the Iranian mission and not the complete severance of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Nevertheless, one thing can be made certain from this analysis: the Harper government’s decision was not aimed at advancing Canada’s national interests in the Middle East, or at making a difference in the lives of Iranian and Syrian citizens from their regimes. By contrast, Prime Minister Harper’s decision-making process ignored these concerns altogether and made partisanship the foremost factor. As such, by unpacking the factors Baird cited to justify this policy, as well as analyzing the legislative and legal ways in which it was implemented, Harper’s decision to sever ties with Iran only makes reasonable sense when partisanship is the prominent focal point.


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