In The Media

Ending relations with Iran’s rogue regime was justifiable for many reasons

by Frank Harvey

October 27, 2012

Over a month has past since the Canadian government closed its embassy in Tehran and expelled Iranian officials from Ottawa. Now that the dust has settled, and former Canadian diplomats are no longer writing op-eds to express shock and awe at what they regard as an obvious affront to their relevance, it is probably a good time to carefully re-evaluate the move.

According to comments prepared for his July 2012 testimony to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Daniel Byman (Director of Research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute) pointed out that Iran’s support for terrorism “has become more aggressive in recent years.”

Iran spends hundreds of millions annually to support Lebanon’s Hizballah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Moreover, Tehran has shown “a renewed emphasis on terrorism outside the Israel/Lebanon/Palestine theater,” particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. In sum, Iran has directly supported activities and entities in Afghanistan that have facilitated attacks on Canadian and other NATO troops.

The regime in Tehran fully embraces and explicitly endorses anti-Semitic policies in almost every pronouncement, interview or speech delivered by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – there is nothing subtle, tactful or diplomatic about these statements. The Iranian government continues to provide direct support to the Syrian regime, its closest ally, despite widespread international and Canadian demands for Asad to step down, universal condemnation of the regime’s widespread human rights violations, and tens of thousands of deaths, and counting.

There is no sign of any diplomatic progress toward stopping Iran from refining (and ultimately deploying) weapons grade uranium, in direct violation of their non-proliferation obligations stipulated in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which are repeatedly highlighted by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency in their voluminous reports, declarations, agreements and demands. Iran has essentially ignored all of them.

Any critic who believes Canadian officials have been duped by some hyped-up WMD threats perpetrated by Israel or Washington should take the time to read these multilaterally sanctioned reports, or at least ask themselves why they don’t care, or can’t be bothered. These WMD threats also explain the very legitimate security concerns surrounding the safety of Canadian embassy officials and staff in anticipation of a highly likely military confrontation with Israel.

Diplomacy requires at least some reasonable expectation that officials in Tehran share at least some of the same values and interests – I have seen no credible evidence from any of Ahmadinejad’s statements or actions that speak to Canadian interests or values, or that privilege diplomatic solutions as a priority, so why stay?

A strong principled signal from a prominent western nation to break ties with Tehran may not accomplish much, but it certainly crystalizes for many Canadians that we have a breaking point informed by values and interests that distinguish us from Ahmadinejad’s regime. For many Canadians, this principled position is worth far more than dozens of low-level diplomatic meetings or socials involving the Canadian Ambassador that would have done nothing but sustain a small part of the regime’s legitimacy. If Iran’s political and religious leaders are committed to developing a nuclear weapons capability (and there is a very compelling military-strategic rationale for acquiring this deterrent), then there is nothing any Canadian diplomat can do, say or threaten to alter this inevitability. Nothing!

And if the preceding analysis is not sufficient to justify the embassy’s closure, then consider another disturbing reason for Ottawa’s move – an increasingly urgent need to expel Iranian diplomats and staff from Canadian territory. In a recent report by CBC’s Brian Stewart, the closure may have been motivated by intelligence regarding the expansion of Iran’s diplomatic staff and the rapid proliferation of Iranian cultural centres in Europe, Asia and throughout the west. These efforts, Stewart reports, have raised serious concerns about the deployment of terrorist sleeper-cells establishing forward operating bases in anticipation of an attack by Israel or coalition forces.

Iran’s Quds Force has been assigned responsibilities for “extraterritorial operations,” and the Deputy Chief Commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, General Hossein Salami, has explicitly warned in interviews with the Fars News Agency that “[o]ur nation is ready to rub the enemies’ snout into dust and send thousands of coffins to their cities….Any aggression against Iran will expand the war into the borders of the enemies. They know our power, and we won’t allow any aggression against our land.” How’s that for diplomacy?

Skeptics will no doubt read these statements as empty threats, but these critics should at least consider the warnings in Daniel Byman’s Senate testimony – “If Israel and/or the United States did a direct military strike on Iran’s suspected nuclear facilities, the Iranian terrorist response would be considerable.” The regime’s support for terrorism is designed, in part, “to keep its options open (and) to call in favors. We could expect attempted terrorist attacks around the world – Iran and Hizballah have shown a presence in every inhabited continent.” Byman’s conclusions are particularly ominous: “In the end, Iran’s lack of strategic options and desire to respond to what it sees as a hostile world will lead Tehran to continue to work with a range of terrorist groups and selectively use violence.”

Iran’s strategic options are informed, in large measure, by the regime’s need to establish counter-coercion leverage in an asymmetric war with very powerful enemies. This is not an irrational response from an unstable regime; it is a perfectly logical strategy designed to address their military weaknesses in preparation for what they regard as an inevitable Israeli/coalition attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In the context of the Arab Spring, surrounded by an expanding number of regimes collapsing under revolutionary pressures to transform their governments, the Iranian regime is legitimately concerned about its own survival. And in light of successful U.S.-NATO military activities in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and, soon, Syria, the obvious need to reinforce counter-coercion leverage to sustain the Iranian regime is becoming more pressing. Milosevic, Hussein, Mullah Omar, Khadafy and Assad did not have the capacity to inflict post-attack retaliations against western targets to raise the direct costs to coalition forces, or to change their strategic calculations, but I suspect all of them wished they had the option. Regimes on the brink of collapse can be expected to do just about anything to survive, as Syria’s Assad is demonstrating.

Skeptics will dismiss these concerns as overreactions to a non-existent threat. If Iranian officials were found to be complicit in terrorist attacks on western targets, they will argue, the retaliation from the U.S. (and Canada) would be swift and devastating. But in the aftermath of two major wars and ongoing insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, at a cost of 10,000 coalition deaths and $3.7 trillion and counting, it is just as likely that the public backlash will be directed against western leaders for putting the country and the public at risk, again. If the Iranian regime is on the brink of collapse, why wouldn’t its leaders be willing to gamble in favor of launching these retaliatory strikes?

If Canadian officials have any reason at all to be concerned about Iranian sleeper cells, they have a clear, moral obligation to the Canadian public to expel Iranian officials. Case closed, even if critics reject all of the other very good (and independently sufficient) reasons described above.

Frank P. Harvey was recently appointed University Research Professor of International Relations, Dalhousie University. He held the 2007 J. William Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in Canadian Studies (SUNY, Plattsburgh), is a Senior Research Fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, and was former Director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie. He has published widely on post-9/11 security, the Iraq war, American foreign and security policy, nuclear and conventional deterrence, coercive diplomacy, proliferation, crisis decision-making, protracted ethnic conflict and national missile defence.

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