Harper’s suprise embassy closure helps Netanyahu, hurts Obama.
by Paul Weinberg
Canada garnered brief international attention for closing its Tehran embassy just as war talk swirls around Iran, in the weeks before the November US presidential election.
Here at home, the sudden breaking of diplomatic relations with Iran continues to reverberate among Iranian born Canadians with families back home concerned about what might happen next, says Iranian Canadian journalist Arash Azizi, whose reportage appears in the Farsi language newspaper in Canada, Shahrvand.
“Let us remember that, in the past 30 years, hardly any Western government has done this. The British government, contrary to the popular belief, didn’t renounce diplomatic relations as Canada has done — even now, even after [the UK’s] embassy was ransacked, by right wing Islamist students in Iran,” he told this reporter.
“Closing down the embassy has a very specific meaning. It is one of aggression; it is a warning of past confrontation with the regime in Iran, which can only have negative repercussions.”
The Canadian government, he points out, “has broken the cardinal rule against inserting itself into the domestic politics of the US.
Azizi estimates a little more than half of the 100,000 to 200,000 strong Iranian community in Canada oppose the Harper government’s decision to cut ties with Iran, although no scientific polling has been done.
With the US presidential race too close to call, suspicion lingers as to whether Stephen Harper was using the break in diplomatic relations with Iran as a way to stick it to Democrat Barack Obama — who, as US President, is still adhering to economic sanctions for an undefined period, despite Israel’s loud complaints.
Middle East expert John Measor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax certainly reads the embassy closing as a message to Obama. Canada’s act, he says, was part of an effort to press Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s cause for more coercive measures against Iran. “The real pressure wasn’t directed at the Iranians; it was directed at forcing the US president to act in a certain way and in a certain time frame on someone else’s agenda/desire.’’
The Canadian government, he points out, “has broken the cardinal rule against inserting itself into the domestic politics of the US. It did so not for any Canadian interest, but rather to further the aims of a foreign state – Israel. This escalation is in opposition to publicly espoused US policy.’’
U of Victoria political scientist, Reg Whittaker also believes cutting off Iran was a favour for an esteemed ally, particularly, he says, as tensions between Netanyahu and the White House were coming to a head.
Official government pronouncements unfortunately won’t settle the timing issue.
“I wonder to what extent the Harper government has tacitly lined itself up with the anti-Obama campaigners? After all, there is the Keystone XL hold to consider. Tossing the Iran decision into the hopper at this point might be seen by the PMO as a small contribution to [this] campaign.’’
At the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, rep Steve McDonald deems talk of differences between Obama and Netanyahu mainly a media “exaggeration.”
“We think the president is absolutely committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,’’ the CIJA spokesperson says.
And for his part, Christian Leuprecht of the Royal Military College of Canada thinks it’s overreaching to see the Tory move as destabilizing. He sees it more the result of practical matters, like Iran’s refusal in recent years to engage with Canadian consular officials. “I wouldn’t interpret this as a more confrontational stance. I think what precipitated it was a number of events, including the fact that Iran doesn’t give consular access to Canadians in Iranian prisons. [Iranian officials] haven’t talked to our consular staff [since] 2007.”
Official government pronouncements unfortunately won’t settle the timing issue. Foreign Affairs and International Trade, rep Chrystiane Roy responded to questions about the shutdown via a pre-prepared statement citing Iranian transgressions such as support for Syria’s Assad, human rights deficit, threats to diplomatic personnel, rhetoric against Israel and more.
Measor is particularly sceptical about the rationale for ending relations based on Iran espionage. “To argue that Iran is more nefariously impacting domestic Canadian affairs or stealing Canadian secrets than a host of states active here is inconceivable,’’ he says, listing off China, Russia, Israel, or a host of European states.
And Philip Girardi, a former CIA specialist in Middle East affairs and exec director of the conservative Council for the National Interest, believes Canada’s action may have rattled the US president.
He points out that the Canadian embassy in Tehran served as an ideal electronic listening post. (There have been no diplomatic relations between US and Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Also, the frostiness between Canada and Iran can be traced to the 1979 US embassy hostage crisis when Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor acted as a de facto CIA station chief and ended up sheltering six Americans and ferrying them out of Iran. )
Comparing the spying process to an “electronic vacuum cleaner,” Girardi says embassies of US allies, like Canada, were able to tap into internal phone calls, emails and text messages within Iranian government ministries. “Every time you lose a resource for knowing what’s going on in another country that is of critical importance.”
Reg Whitaker questions whether the Canadian embassy would have been the only such US ear in Tehran. Also, Canada’s Defence Minister Peter Mackay told the CBC that Ottawa consulted its allies before making the decision to cut diplomatic ties with Iran.
“Which might explain the muted-to-non-committal American response to the closing of our embassy. Since we know that the US and Israel have been busy with cyber-war attacks on Iran, implanting very nasty worms, etc, we can be pretty confident that the Americans have Iranian communications across the board – from telephone to internet — very closely covered by multiple sources,” the UVic professor added.
Canada still prefers sanctions and diplomatic pressure, MacKay said, but "unfortunately those opportunities are becoming less and less obvious and less and less effective."
"The Israelis are going to make their own decisions," MacKay said. "Trying to shift the attitudes of this regime has proven to be enormously challenging."
Meanwhile, Yves Engler, author of a new book about Canadian foreign policy under Stephen Harper, The Ugly Canadian, agrees that the prime minister might be pleased if Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, wins next month.
“Harper is so ideological that he sees himself as tied in with the neoconservatives in the US in general; he is tied in with the big oil, at that level of Israel; at the level of global warming,” he says.
But Engler adds some caution to his thesis “I don't want to go too far with that because the lines are not completely 100 hundred percent [between Canadian Conservatives and the US right]. But clearly as far as I know — from the Canadian prime minister’s standpoint, from recent history — there has never been a Canadian prime minister that has been [more] clearly aligned with the most right wing sectors of the US.”
© Copyright 2012 Paul Weinberg, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca