No More Mr. Nice Guy

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks May 16, 2013  at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York (AFP PHOTO/Don Emmert /Getty Images) Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper speaks May 16, 2013 at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York. (AFP PHOTO/Don Emmert /Getty Images)

Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper speaks May 16, 2013 at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York. (AFP PHOTO/Don Emmert /Getty Images)

The strain between Canada and Iran was highlighted again this week, when—in contrast to the majority of other Western states—Canada's foreign minister called the recent Iranian elections "effectively meaningless" and described president-elect Hassan Rouhani as a "puppet" of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs, together with the University of Toronto, set up an online monitoring service during the election, which broadcast reports on developments into Iran in Farsi. This followed a wider online initiative launched this spring that aims to help Iranians bypass Internet censorship. And these are only the latest setbacks in a rocky relationship—one which Canada officially severed last fall, before imposing near-complete sanctions on Iran this spring.

It is unusual for Canada, a country fiercely proud of its role in peacekeeping and diplomacy, to take a stance on Iran that is more hawkish even than that of the US. But since Iran’s revolution in 1979, relations between the Islamic Republic and Canada have been tenuous. Of course, Canada’s participation in the exfiltration of six American diplomats from Iran in 1980, recently popularized in Ben Affleck’s blockbuster Argo, only complicated matters. Once Canada’s role in the "Canadian Caper" was revealed, Ottawa closed its embassy in Tehran and relations remained severed until 1990, when Canada sent peacekeeping forces to the Gulf to help facilitate the Iran–Iraq ceasefire.

After 1990, trade links expanded rapidly and Iran became Canada’s “most important trading partner in the Middle East region.” However, relations soured in 2003 following the arrest of a Canadian–Iranian photojournalist, Zahra Kazemi, who had been taking photos outside Iran’s notorious Elvin Prison, where she was detained and eventually beaten to death. In the aftermath of the Kazemi debacle, Canadian–Iranian relations suffered a chill, but never froze to the extent they are today.

From dove to hawk

After the narrow victory of the Conservative Party, led by Stephen Harper, in the 2006 general election, Canada’s policy toward Iran became increasingly hawkish. Significantly, because Harper failed to win a majority, he was forced to restrain Canadian foreign policy for his first few years in office. However, since securing a majority in 2011, Harper has adopted an aggressive policy towards Iran, passing unilateral sanctions on numerous occasions and eventually severing diplomatic relations in 2012.

Central to analyzing Canada’s foreign policy toward Iran is understanding Harper and his conservative ideology. Prior to his victory in 2006, Canada had experienced back-to-back Liberal governments for thirteen years. During this time, a multilateralist foreign policy was the norm, characterized by the country’s leading role in peacekeeping missions throughout the Middle East and Africa.

Notably, Canadian forces participated in twenty-three peacekeeping missions in the fifteen years prior to Harper’s election. Yet since his election, Canada has only signed on to two missions, one of which was a holdover from the previous Liberal government. This reflects a distinct shift away from Canada’s traditional peacekeeping role, towards a foreign policy reminiscent of the neoconservative policies adopted by the Bush administration.

Canadian–Iranian relations altered significantly in 2007 as a result of the conservative government’s perception of Iran’s role in the Afghanistan War. As the Taliban’s insurgency escalated, Canada’s defense minister, Peter MacKay, accused Iran of providing the Taliban with weapons, despite the fact Iran viewed the Taliban as an enemy, assisted the US in overthrowing it in late 2001, and played a significant role in helping the US rebuild the Kabul government after the Taliban's downfall. MacKay’s statement was contradicted immediately by a senior Canadian general serving in Afghanistan, who saw no evidence that Iran was providing arms to the Taliban. The Iranian government subsequently denied the allegations and immediately expelled Canada’s ambassador, John Mundy, in retaliation.

Relations between Iran and Canada underwent a further chill following the disputed June 2009 election in Iran, when Iranian authorities arrested a Canadian–Iranian Newsweek journalist, Maziar Bahari, for covering the election protests. After Bahari’s arrest, Canadian officials pressed Iran to release him on numerous occasions, including in a meeting with Iran’s chargé d’affairs in July 2009, and a month later during a meeting between Canada and Iran’s foreign ministers in Istanbul. Bahari was released on bail after 118 days in captivity and fled the country. Sentenced to thirteen years in asbentia, he is unable to return to Iran. Remarkably, Canada did not take any punitive measures against Iran, which stands in stark contrast to the aggressive measures adopted toward Iran following Harper’s securing of a majority government in the 2011 election.

Imposing sanctions

In June 2010, Canada introduced a new round of sanctions against Iran designed to restrict their access to uranium and other nuclear materials and technology. According to the Canadian government, the sanctions were a response to Iran’s failure to comply with UN Security Council’s demands about its nuclear program. Harper also wanted to “send a clear message to the Iranian regime that international standards cannot be flouted without consequence.”

Going further, on July 26 Harper announced that Canada was imposing additional unilateral sanctions against Iran for the first time, under the Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA). According to Harper’s statement, “these targeted measures [were] designed to hamper attempts by Iran to develop nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programs as well as to persuade it to agree to constructive discussions with China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States,” also known as the P5+1 group.

Following Harper’s victory in the 2011 election, in which he secured a parliamentary majority for the first time, Canadian policy toward Iran became more aggressive. In the fall of 2011, Canada imposed further sanctions against Iran alongside the US, in response to reports that Iranian officials had plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. However, unlike past instances of sanctions which were in response to Iran’s nuclear program, in this case Canada was imposing sanctions punitively. Furthermore, numerous Iran experts expressed skepticism about the charges. For instance, Gary Sick, a former senior official on the US National Security Council staff in the 1970s and 1980s, said the plot was “very hard to believe.” Despite the lack of support, the Canadian government moved forward with the unilateral sanctions measures.

Escalating matters further, in November 2011 Canada imposed additional sanctions against Iran along with the US and Britain in response to a report from the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) on its nuclear program. Significantly, Canada cut Iran off from the Canadian banking system, which prompted outrage from Canada’s large community of Iranian expatriates because it unexpectedly froze a number of accounts of Canadians of Iranian descent and barred others from transferring money to their families in Iran. The sanctions expanded the list of prohibited goods to include items used in Iran’s petrochemical, oil and gas industries and dual-use items that could be used in Iran's nuclear program. It also added new individuals and “entities” to the list of designated persons.

Yet it appeared this still was not enough. In January 2012, Canada imposed further sanctions against Iran under SEMA, including asset freezes and prohibitions on dealing with three new individuals and five more “entities” associated with Iran’s nuclear program. Taken together, these sanctions show that after Harper’s securing of a majority government, Canada has adopted a policy of confrontation with Iran, making little attempt to engage it diplomatically.


On September 8, 2012, Canada stunned its allies when it abruptly severed relations with Iran, sparking intense speculation as to what prompted such action. Some pointed to the impending release of Argo, while others believe it fit the escalating pattern evident in Harper’s Iran policy. Even so, US officials have privately indicated their frustration with Canada’s unexpected action, which cut the US off from a key source of intelligence on day-to-day happenings in Iran. As former Canadian Ambassador John Mundy observed, “this is the first time in decades that a Canadian prime minister, Liberal or Conservative, appears to be advocating approaches that reduce diplomatic opportunities for peace during an international crisis.” Even so, the Harper government brushed off these criticisms and continued its campaign against Iran.

In late 2012, Canada announced yet another round of sanctions against Iran under SEMA in response to Iran's continued refusal “to comply with international obligations ... or enter into meaningful negotiations.” The new measures imposed further asset freezes and prohibited dealing with ninety-eight new “entities” and one additional individual “of proliferation concern.” The sanctions also targeted “economic sectors that indirectly support or provide funds for Iran’s nuclear program: oil and gas, mining, metals, and shipping.”

Significantly, the new sanctions offered some relief to Canadians of Iranian origin, who had been outraged by the earlier ban on financial transactions, which saw numerous bank accounts of Canadian–Iranians frozen without warning. Under the new sanctions, individuals were allowed to transfer personal remittances up to CAD 40,000. Overall, while the Harper government’s cavalier efforts to isolate and punish Iran had backfired domestically, relief was only offered along with a further escalation of sanctions.

Finally, in April 2013, Canada shocked Iran experts when it announced Canadian intelligence had foiled a terrorist plot to derail a passenger train near Toronto. According to the government, the terrorists had received “direction and guidance” from Al-Qaeda forces in Iran, but there were “no indications” that the Iranian government had sponsored the plot. This was confirmed by Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, who said, “This is the most hilarious thing I've heard in my 64 years.” To him, the idea that Iran was linked with Al-Qaeda was “truly ridiculous,” since Iran was a devoutly Shi'a state, while Al-Qaeda's members are violent, bigoted anti-Shi'a Sunnis. Even so, the Canadian government imposed further sanctions against Iran in May 2013, citing the failure of ongoing nuclear talks held in Kazakstan. The US soon followed suit.

Anger from the sidelines

This brief history of Canadian–Iranian relations leads to a number of conclusions. Since Stephen Harper’s election in 2006, Canada has abandoned its former peacekeeping role in favor of an aggressive foreign policy, and Iran has been perhaps its primary target. It is clear that official Canadian hostility towards Iran has escalated sharply since Harper’s victory in the 2010 general election. In turn, this indicates that the driving force of Canadian policy is not Iran’s actions, but rather the Harper government’s desire to take punitive action against it. Since then, Canada has passed five rounds of unilateral sanctions and severed relations with Tehran. Throughout, it is evident that Harper’s actions are not based on advancing Canada’s national interests, given that the breakdown in relations between the two countries has not benefited Canada in any measurable way, and has not bridged the gap between Iran and the P5+1.

Canada lacks the international leverage with either the P5+1 or Iran to bring both sides together using sanctions and coercion, but does have the ability to act as a mediator, given that it can maintain links with both the US and Iran. If Canada wanted to advance its national interests, it would reopen its embassy in Tehran as soon and possible, and seek diplomatic engagement with the Iranian regime to encourage a breakthrough in the nuclear standoff, instead of trying to pile more pressure on Tehran. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely while Harper remains in power, and Canada is likely to remain a hostile player on the sidelines, rather than a part of the solution.

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