By Paul Weinberg
TORONTO, Sep 17 2012 (IPS) – Skepticism continues in Canada about why the national government abruptly cut off diplomatic relations with Iran earlier this month, although ties between the two states have been rocky since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
One explanation provided by John Baird, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, is that Iran and its ally Syria are now being officially designated by his government as “state sponsors of terrorism” under the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which allows Canadian victims of terrorism to sue either nation’s government.
Meanwhile, his cabinet colleague and immigration minister, Jason Kenney, told a CBC Newsworld television show, Power & Politics, that the Iranian embassy in Ottawa was spying and intimidating people of Iranian origin in Canada.
“There is illicit listening, there is diplomatic listening and then there is national security violations. And there is harassment, and intimidation and monitoring of our own community by forces of a dictatorship,” Kenney said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper told Sun News Network after the unrelated murder of the U.S. ambassador in Libya of potential dangers facing Canadian diplomatic staff.
“When you can’t be certain, as we can no longer be certain, of the security of our diplomatic personnel, this is the measure we have to take,” Harper said.
He added that, “We assume our diplomats can conduct the business of the country or their respective countries free from fear of persecution or violence.”
John Measor, a Middle East expert and assistant professor of political science at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, counters that Canada will now lose the ability to know what is happening on the ground in Iran.
Canada’s diplomats in Iran have acted for the U.S. and Britain, neither of which have a diplomatic presence in Tehran, Measor told IPS.
“The U.S. hasn’t been in Iran since the revolution and the hostage crisis, the British withdrew when their embassy was overrun by state-sponsored thugs and paramilitary almost two years ago, and no other such NATO states maintain a presence,” he said.
“Switzerland has and will act on behalf of Americans and Brits for consular matters , but Canadians were providing on-the-ground eyes and ears as well as invaluable assessments of meetings with members of Iranian society from low to high. While not ever recognised, that means that Canadian personal and diplomatic pouches were also the sole remaining truly trusted avenue for British and American intelligence efforts as well,” Measor added.
The Canadian government`s intelligence on Iranian diplomats doing “inappropriate” things in Canada is certainly “plausible” but should be intepreted with some caution, said Reg Whitaker, ajunct political science professor at the University of Victoria and the author of various books on national security
“The problem is that the Harper government has a consistent record of relentlessly demonising the Iranian regime and interpreting everything it does in the worst possible light,” he told IPS.
“The most notorious example is the (the prime minister’s) statement that Iran is not only pursuing nuclear weapons but that they have indicated that they would use them against Israel: a grotesque misrepresentation for which there is not a shred of evidence in the words of any Iranian official,” Whitaker said.
Another explanation involves Canada’s relationship with Israel, which in some minds appears stronger and deeper even than what exists between Tel Aviv and Washington during the U.S. presidential race.
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “locked into an increasingly fraught conflict” with the U.S. as well as Britain, France and Germany over a potential and unilateral military strike by the Jewish state on Iranian’s nuclear facilities, the Harper government seems to be tilting in the opposite direction, says Whitaker.
In closing its Tehran posting on Sep. 7 and expelling Iranian diplomats at this sensitive movement, the Harper government was demonstrating a subtle bias against the current administration in Washington during a tight race in the U.S. between the Democratic incumbent U.S. President Barack Obama and the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, says Whitaker.
“Tossing the Iran decision into the hopper at this point might be seen by the prime minister`s office as a small contribution to the campaign,” he said.
Also upsetting Ottawa – closely tied to the oil and energy sector – was the Obama administration’s decision earlier this year to delay the construction of the Keystone pipeline ferrying the thick bitumen-based petroleum from the Alberta tar sands through the central U.S., Whitaker added.
Meanwhile, John Measor predicts that Ottawa`s action on Iran will only hurt Canada in its relationship with the U.S.
“Such escalation in opposition to publicly espoused U.S. policy (is) the kind of thing that puts U.S. military and diplomatic personal at increased risk (and) most tend to not react kindly to such a cavalier attitude to their personal safety, not to mention Canadian personnel,” said the Halifax professor.
Offering a broader context, Thomas Woodley, president of the Montreal-based Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, argues that Canada under both the previous Liberal and current Conservative governments has abandoned a decades’old “honest broker” status in the Middle East.
“Over the last few years Canada has increasingly gone to bat for the Israeli government. Canada’s votes at the U.N. and its diplomatic pronouncements increasingly have a ‘Made in Israel’ feel. Be it silence on Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza in 2008-09, silence on Israel’s 2010 attack on the Gaza Aid Flotilla, opposition to Palestine’s bid for U.N. membership, or other issues,” Woodley told IPS.
Furthermore, Woodley says that Canada is “implicitly” encouraging Israel and other countries to be “belligerent towards Iran” and thus encouraging Iran’s authoritarian leaders to call on Iranians to set aside their reform demands and “rally round the flag” in the face of an external threat.
“Canada’s move is also undermining the efforts of Israeli moderates, opposition politicians and even prominent Israeli military and intelligence figures to discourage Netanyahu from initiating a first strike against Iran,” Woodley said.
Carl Meyer, a reporter for the Ottawa-based Embassy Magazine, revealed from the confidential briefing notes of John Baird that the Canadian foreign affairs minister was, during a visit to Israel in January, briefed at length on the Iran “threat” by half a dozen top Israeli officials, including the head of Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad, Tamir Pardo, and Israeli PM Netanyahu himself.
Meyer reported that Baird was “prepped” with a list of “key messages” such as how “Canada strongly supports Israel’s right to defend itself and live in peace with its neighbours, within secure boundaries,” and “Canada is profoundly concerned by the threat Iran poses to regional and global security.”