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Irreconcilable Differences: Canada and Iran

Irreconcilable Differences: Canada and Iran

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Formal diplomatic relations between Iran and Canada were developed in the late 1950s. As with most relationships, they have experienced their share of ups and downs. While the international community, mainly through the United Nations, mollified many of the pair’s issues over the years, the duo’s fragile relationship reached a breaking point on September 7, 2012. Citing irreconcilable differences, Canada filed for divorce.

Among the list of Canada’s issues are Iran’s continuous disregard for international calls to cease its nuclear program, threatening actions against Israel, and support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Declaring Iran “a state sponsor of terrorism and a threat to world security,” Canada officially severed diplomatic relations with Iran.

The Bumpy Road of Marriage

The tragic end to Canada and Iran’s union raises questions about the pair’s history and events leading up to Canada’s decision to call it quits. Is Canada playing hard to get, or are their issues severe enough to justify a permanent separation?

Although Iran did not have an embassy in Canada until 1991, Canada established a diplomatic mission in Tehran during 1959. The mission became an embassy in 1961. During the past several decades, political disputes and differing views on international issues have tested the Iranian-Canadian relationship.

With the 1979 Islamic Revolution and subsequent American hostage crisis, which began in November 1979 and lasted until January 1981, Canada’s relations with Iran deteriorated. During the hostage crisis, former Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor assisted six American embassy workers, who eluded capture in November and fled Iran with falsified Canadian passports. Shortly after their escape in January 1980, the Canadian Embassy in Iran closed. Despite reopening in 1988, diplomatic relations did not normalize until the 1996 exchange of ambassadors.

While still on the mend, the countries’ relationship was again tested in 2003 with the death of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian freelance photographer. Despite possessing a government-issued press card, Zahra Kazemi was arrested after taking photographs of protestors outside Evin prison. Nineteen days after her arrest, Zahra died in the custody of Iranian authorities.

Relations continued to sour in 2008 after Iran’s detainment of Hossein Derakshan, a Canadian-Iranian blogger. Two years later, the developer of the first Farsi language blogs, was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Still grappling with the ramifications of unlawful arrests and maltreatment of dual citizens living in Iran, the Canadian Government found a new platform. In 2010, Canada vocalized about Iran’s suspected nuclear program, voicing its unhappiness with Iran’s noncompliance with United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and suspend its uranium-enrichment activities. Building upon U.N. resolutions and sanctions, Canada implemented a series of sanctions under the Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA). Under the SEMA, property in Canada owned by the Iranian Government could be seized or frozen. Additionally, the Canadian Government reserved the right to restrict exports to and impose restrictions on aircrafts originating from Iran. Canada imposed further financial restrictions under the SEMA in 2011.

With a series of still unresolved issues, and arguably ill will, the events of 2012 triggered a downward spiral that ended in Canada’s September 7, 2012 breaking point. In addition to adding Iran to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, Canada denounced Iranian military assistance to the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad and Iranian support of groups threatening the State of Israel. Added to the long list of gripes are Iran’s human rights violations.

Summing up the Canadian Government’s grievances, Foreign Minister John Baird stated, “Canada views the government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today.”

The Undesirable Divorce

With more than a half-century relationship, the split undoubtedly was not without loose ends. Before the divorce was finalized, logistical issues needed to be addressed, including the fate of diplomats and expatriates in both countries.

On the day the news of embassy closure broke, Canada announced the closure of its embassy in Tehran and gave Iranian diplomats a five-day period to leave Canada. Canada also withdrew its diplomatic staff from Iran. Backlash from Iran came in the form of criticism of Canada’s unprofessionalism with Ali Larijani, Iran’s parliamentary speaker, rescinding an RSVP for a late October meeting of international legislators in Canada.

With the immediate closure of the Canadian Embassy in Tehran, Canadians who choose to remain in Iran must seek assistance from the Embassy of Canada in Ankara, Turkey, or other regional missions. In conjunction with severing official ties, the Canadian Government updated its Travel Reports and Warnings, advising Canadians to avoid travel to Iran. As the Iranian Government does not recognize the principle of dual nationality, Canadians with Iranian citizenship are warned of Canada’s virtual inability to assist Iranian-Canadians residing in Iran.

Beginning in the late 1970s, waves of Iranians began flocking to Canada. Numbers escalated in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and throughout the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Currently, an estimated 120,000 people of Iranian origin or descent live in Canada. News of Canada severing ties with Iran was met with differing sentiments among Iranian expatriates. Some supported the decision, others were outraged.

With its short, albeit complicated diplomatic history littered with disagreements, the timing of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member’s embassy closure is questionable. Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird announced the severance of diplomatic relations while in Russia. While the action in itself adds a new dimension to tensions between Iran and the West, the circumstances surrounding the announcement raise speculations of imminent military action against Iran.




Allison Kushner

Allison Kushner received three undergraduate degrees from Boston University and a Master's degree in Middle Eastern Security and Diplomacy Studies from Tel Aviv University. She has spent time living and traveling throughout Europe, the Middle East, and China. A former political speechwriter, Allison has taught college level Political Science and International Relations in the U.S. and China. She continues to be engaged in public speaking activities at home and abroad.