OTTAWA – Canada has shuttered its embassy in Iran and is expelling all remaining Iranian diplomats from Canada in a surprising diplomatic move announced on Friday by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
“Canada’s position on the regime in Iran is well-known. Canada views the Government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today,” Baird said from Russia where he is attending the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum.
When asked to explain why Canada was leaving Iran now, Baird pointed to a long list of offences the Iranian regime has committed against the global community.
On that list is the Iranian regime’s ongoing military support of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, its nuclear program, its constant threats to Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric, its human rights violations, and its support for terrorist groups.
The latter prompted the federal government to list Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism under the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act on Friday.
Topping the threats is the one posed for Canada’s diplomatic staff by Iran’s “blatant disregard” for the Vienna Convention’s guarantee of protection for diplomatic personnel, according to Baird.
“Our concern in this regard is the safety and security working in Tehran. It just got to a point where we are very uncomfortable putting their lives at risk,” he said.
Baird said there was not a specific safety breach that prompted Friday’s move, but pointed to last November when the British embassy was stormed by hardline Iranian students after Western powers announced stronger sanctions.
Another famous example occurred in 1979 when 52 Americans were held hostage in their Iranian embassy by a group of Islamist students and militants.
Ironically, “Argo,” a movie portraying the event and starring Ben Affleck, opens Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival.
All Canadian diplomatic staff has left Iran and all Iranian diplomats in Ottawa have five days to leave the country.
The Canadian embassy moved most of its immigration staff to Turkey months ago and left just a handful of people in Tehran. Canada has not accredited an ambassador to Iran since 2007.
While Canada has been acting in concert with its allies to put pressure on the Iranian regime through diplomatic reprimands and strict economic sanctions, Ottawa is the first to suspend diplomatic relations.
“This is a made-in-Ottawa action and we are acting alone in this regard,” Baird said.
A commentator on Iran’s English language television blamed the Canadian move on the influence of Israel.
“Now we have to worry about the Canadian government losing its sovereignty to the Israeli government,” said Foad Izadi, a commentator from the University of Tehran. “The influence of the Israeli lobby inside of Canada is quite the boy’s town.”
The announcement prompted questions about the prospect of an imminent military strike on Iran, possibly by Israel. Baird quelled such speculation in a statement emailed to reporters, saying: “Unequivocally, we have no information about a military strike on Iran.”
The Israeli government is praising Canada for taking a “courageous and principled stand.”
“Prime Minister (Stephen) Harper’s leadership serves as an example to the international community of the bold and moral measures needed to set clear red lines for Iran,” said Miriam Ziv, Israel’s ambassador to Canada, told Global News in a statement.
The sudden decision to close the embassy surprised many observers.
“It is a puzzling action we see here today,” said Maziar Bahar, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was jailed in Iran during the 2009 election protests.
Bahar said it benefits Canada to keep a presence in Iran unless Canadian diplomats are in imminent danger.
“This is the only government we have in Iran and we have to deal with it,” Bahar said. “(Diplomats) could understand that better. Now that they are out Canada has deprived itself of that resource in Iran.”
Queen’s University professor Houchang Hassan-Yari said the Iranians haven’t done anything spectacular lately to force Canada’s hand.
“What the Iranian government is continuing to do is the same very negative policy of the past but nobody expected Canada to reach that point,” said Hassan-Yari, who teaches at the university’s Centre for International and Defence Policy. “I imagine the Canadian government would have reached this conclusion after many months of discussion and internal debate.”
This is not the first time the Canadian embassy has been closed. After helping the American hostages escape in 1980, diplomats left the country for eight years.
The federal government has also issued a travel warning to tell Canadians to avoid all travel to Iran. Canadians with dual citizenship were also being warned that the Iranian government doesn’t recognize the principle of dual nationality, making it nearly impossible for Canadian officials to offer them help.
Foreign Affairs is instructing Canadians in Iran seeking consular and passport services to travel to the embassy in Ankara, Turkey or another Canadian mission.
Canadians requiring urgent help should contact the Emergency Watch and Response Centre in Ottawa by phone at 613-996-8885 or by sending an email to email@example.com.