A Footnote on Canada-Iran Relations

The Harper government took a decision in late August 2012, to bring Canadian diplomats out of Tehran and expel Iranian diplomats in Ottawa. It was described by some observers as a sudden decision, but it was obviously a measure which required time to implement. It may have come as a surprise to the Iranian embassy in Ottawa. But for Canadians in Tehran, it followed a path with many precedents: a decision to send family and dependents home in early 2012; the closing of the visa office a few months later; the down-sizing of the Canada-based staff; and finally, the decision to close. The final exit from Tehran was a well-planned manoeuvre, executed over several days, which saw the final five Canadians leave on September 7, just as the announcement was made.

But what, exactly, did we do? CTV News announced Canada’s decision “to sever diplomatic ties” with Iran. The National Post wrote that it was a “surprise decision to terminate diplomatic ties”. The CBC spoke of “cutting off” relations. The Globe and Mail reported less dramatically about the “closure” of the Canadian embassy. The press release from DFAIT announced officially that “diplomatic relations between Canada and Iran have been suspended.” The backgrounder of a later DFAIT press release explained details of a situation when “diplomatic relations cease between two states”.

‘When embassies close, there is a price to be paid in terms of timely information and astute assessments based on local contacts.’

Three points are now pretty clear.  First, Canada did not break diplomatic relations with Iran. Second, we simply closed our diplomatic offices in Tehran, while requiring the Iranian Government to do likewise in Ottawa (a measure consistent with the provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations). Third, in the absence of Canadian representation in Iran, we appointed a third country (that is, other than Canada or Iran), namely, Italy, to protect our interests and handle our consular matters. The Vienna Convention contains nothing about “cutting”, “severing” or “terminating” relations, or even “suspending” relations, to use DFAIT’s language.

Some of the confusion surrounding the announcement seems to have stemmed from the political imperative to make the Canadian actions seem more dramatic than they actually were. But the decision was dramatic enough: the full Iranian diplomatic complement in Ottawa was declared “persona non grata” and was forced to leave within five days. Canadian staff in Tehran packed up discreetly and closed the mission surreptitiously.

Does the diplomatic jargon matter? Yes, it does. Maintaining diplomatic relations does not imply approval of another government. (If it did, we’d have very few embassies abroad.) Nor does it imply dialogue with another government. What diplomatic relations mean is that we can communicate with the government of another country. We retain that ability with the Government of Iran, either directly wherever both of us have representation (in New York, for example), or indirectly, through the Italian government, now our “protecting power”. For the few but important Canadian consular cases in Iran, this is especially significant.

And what’s the difference between having an embassy in place and not having one? Having a diplomatic presence in other capitals really means that the Canadian government has eyes and ears on the ground, where it can see the realities of other countries and keep our Government’s leadership (and perhaps our absent friends) informed on the local situation. There’s value in what’s come to be called “ground truth”—that is, the truth you discover by effective use of your presence on the ground. This “presence” covers a lot more ground than conversations with the host government. It means cultivating a range of contacts in order to understand how other states and societies really work. This job is especially significant when what one reads in the Canadian or Western media may be simplistic images that blur an appreciation of complex situations.

When embassies close, there is a price to be paid in terms of timely information and astute assessments based on local contacts. Thus the bias of most governments favours a diplomatic presence, unless and until circumstances on the ground make an embassy almost impossible to operate. Among those who no doubt regretted our decision to leave were the U.S. and the UK, who also lack eyes and ears on the ground.

Canada’s decision really means that that our diplomatic relationship continues (frosty though it may be), impeded by the closure of our respective missions. At some point, we may wish to send envoys to Tehran. The Iranians would be wise to accept a modest level of reciprocal discourse with us. Having an embassy in Tehran in times of tension and danger is useful. But assuming that this had become impossible, the default position is to keep channels of communication open, somewhere and somehow. This is a no-cost, no-risk benefit to all parties, especially as the Government of Iran moves onto increasingly dangerous ground that may eventually warrant a concerted international response.

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