When Peter MacKay’s outspoken wife Nazanin Afshin-jam announced in July that Canada should shut down the Iranian embassy in Ottawa, on the nebulous charge that it was using cultural events to distribute propaganda (something which Canadian embassies have traditionally also done, incidentally), I almost wrote a post telling her to get realistic. Outside of crises demanding some sort of heavy symbolic action, or outright wars for obvious reasons, embassies don’t usually get shut down, also for an obvious reason: if you close down your embassy, what happens next week, or next month, or next year, when you urgently need to communicate about something?
Fortunately, back in July, I bit my tongue, because apparently the juvenile Harper regime agreed with Afshin-jam. Our embassy in Tehran has been closed; in response, Iran will leave Canada. No particular reason for the move was given, but the Harper regime has been playing it up anyways. In probably the most absurd part of the whole debacle, Stephen Harper has implied that the Iranians care so much about Canadian goodwill, and will be so incensed by his genius surprise move, that they might actually contemplate military action (against who?).
I won’t appeal to supporters of the government on the grounds that this move has suddenly left a number of Canadians in prison in that authoritarian regime — the sort of political imprisonment that our government says has outraged them the most — without the benefit of consular support. If you cared about consular access, you wouldn’t be a supporter of this government.
I will, however, say the following. If the Harper regime has a reason for this move other than to appeal the rabid Islamophobes among their base, they have a duty to explain their action to the Canadian public immediately. Idiotic and provocative statements about “Iran’s capacity for increasingly bad behaviour” don’t cut it. The fact that Iran is governed by religious extremists is hardly news. The fact that they are widely reported to have a nuclear weapons research program, and that their leaders routinely denounce Israel, is also hardly news. So, why the sudden need to shut down their embassy?
There is one obvious good reason to shut down an embassy, given that one of your allies has been publicly discussing the possibility of a military strike against Iran and another of your allies is in the middle of a painfully contentious election cycle that would prevent them from prohibiting the strike the way they usually do. Let’s hope that’s not the reason. Let’s hope our government is smarter than that.
Our regime also should be honest about the fact that the embassy closure will have real consequences for diplomatic relations. Saying we’ll just conduct those relations through allied embassies in Tehran doesn’t cut it. If we could do that on a routine basis, we wouldn’t have needed our embassy there to begin with. It’s also worth pointing out that none of our allies actually have to volunteer to help us in that way, and they’re going to be a little reluctant to bend over backwards for us in Tehran just to help us out of the fix we caused through our immature PR stunt. The United States has the influence to lean on its allies for help in such situations and expect compliance. Canada doesn’t.
Maybe there really wasn’t any carefully thought-out reason for the closing of the embassy. It wouldn’t surprise me. When it comes to foreign affairs, this is a government that sends out press releases denouncing the alphabet.
Beyond that, what happens if we actually do need to talk to the Iranian regime in the future? I guess the Harper regime is gambling that we won’t have to. After all, they don’t want to buy our oil, and they don’t want to invest in our oilpatch. Who needs ‘em?
Update: Former ambassador to Iran John Mundy makes many of the same points in The Globe & Mail. He also points out that it will be difficult to get our embassy reopened, so essentially we’ve said with this move that there would be nothing worth saying to the Iranian government on any subject for the foreseeable future.