John Mundy on the Embassy Closure, Diplomacy from a Distance, and the Nuclear Threat

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May 22, 2013

John Mundy is a former Canadian diplomat. John was appointed Canadian Ambassador to Iran in 2007 but was expelled at the end of that year by President Ahmadinejad when Canada and Iran failed to negotiate an exchange of ambassadors. OpenCanada asked John about the factors behind the deterioration of bilateral relations, and what this means for Canada's ability to help Iranians advocate for the regime to respect human rights in a time of nuclear brinksmanship.

The decision to close our embassy in Teheran surprised many Canadians. Was the failure of the agreement on the ambassadorial exchange between Ottawa and Tehran the tipping point for the severing of bilateral relations? Were there other factors that led to a buildup in tensions prior to this point, such as domestic repression in Iran?

The failure to exchange ambassadors was a contributing factor to last September’s decision to close the two embassies but it happened in 2007, more than 5 years before Canada decided to close the two embassies and could not have been the tipping point.

It was not only Canadians who were surprised by the decision; the international community was caught off guard too. When asked to explain the Canadian decision, Prime Minister Harper and Foreign Minister Baird listed Iran's nuclear program;  its support for Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah; its unwillingness to protect embassies and diplomats resident in Iran; and its domestic human rights record as reasons for their decision. The problem was none of these were new and most of them were reasons for more diplomatic engagement, if you believed diplomacy was still viable. What confused the international community was Canada's timing and the decision to announce it from Russia, the country most invested in seeking a peaceful political settlement to the Iranian nuclear issue.

I think the key factor leading to the closure of the embassies was the Conservative Government's decision that further engagement with Iran, even at a minimum level, was futile and perhaps even counterproductive. The government wanted to make this statement both to Iran and to our friends and allies who are still in political negotiation with Iran. The government therefore chose to close the two embassies in a way that drew maximum attention to its decision. To some extent it overreached, because its announcement created a brief war scare when the international media speculated that Canada had been tipped off about an imminent Israeli attack.   

With the benefit of six months hindsight it seems probable that at the time of the decision the government had not only given up on any further dialogue with Iran, but had also decided it was time to ramp up Canadian action to a level that made further diplomatic representation in Tehran unsustainable. Shortly after the embassies were closed the Canadian government added the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to the Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA) and listed the Guard's Qods force as a terrorist entity under Canada's Anti-Terrorism Act. Last week at the Munk Centre, Foreign Minister John Baird made a speech of unqualified hostility towards Iran’s government.  

Now that we no longer have Canadian diplomats in Tehran, our government can sponsor any number of initiatives isolating and criticizing the Iranian government without fear of reprisal against Canadian diplomats.  It must be said however that three Canadian citizens in jail in Iran were abandoned by their government and they remain there today.

 Without a diplomatic presence in Tehran, what strategies can our government use to support greater human rights for the people of Iran? Does the lack of a diplomatic presence make a difference to our capacity to speak out, affect change, and achieve our broader Middle East policy goals?  

There are still ways in which our government can support human rights in Iran but by closing the two embassies but Canada has given up several things that are valuable to statecraft. Canada can no longer talk to the Iranian government. Canadian diplomats can no longer observe and report on what is happening within Iran. Canada also can no longer make representations on behalf of Canadian citizens and Iranian dissidents in trouble there.  All three are functions of an embassy and they are valuable even if you cannot show direct results. Indeed, when a government gives up its ability to communicate directly with another government, it is almost guaranteed that both sides will get it wrong during a crisis when they are under pressure and trying to guess what their adversary is going to do next. This is why governments are loath to break off diplomatic relations and why the United States is seeking to establish direct one-on-one talks with Iran despite thirty years of bitter conflict.

Nevertheless, even without an embassy, there are ways in which Canada can continue to support human rights in Iran. Canada can sanction Iranian individuals and entities most responsible for human rights abuses. It can support Iranian activists within the Iranian diaspora who promote human rights. It can also attempt to empower Iranian activists within Iran who are publicizing human rights abuses, although this is difficult to do without endangering them.

The trick is to support Iranian human rights without also convincing the Iranian government that they have to choose between surrender and further intransigence. This is where Canadian policy can be faulted. Canada's emphasis on human rights is good and plays to a Canadian strength. But the way in which the Canadian government has chosen to advance its human rights agenda with Iran is unlikely to achieve success.

The problem is the rationale for the Conservative Government's Iranian policy. Foreign Minister Baird’s speech last week to the Munk School’s Global Dialogue on Iran's Future was unreservedly hostile to the Iranian government and Iran will therefore conclude that Canadian supports regime change. If our friends and allies in the P5 plus 1 group endorse our approach, then it will likely put a political solution to the Iranian crisis out of reach and provoke even more human rights abuses within Iran.

Iranian hardliners use the fear of regime change to discredit reform factions within Iran’s leadership and justify their human rights abuses. Of course it is these hardliners, not the Canadian or Western governments, who bear full moral responsibility for their actions.

You have written in the past that naivete among observers leads to inaccurate assessments of the Iranian nuclear threat.  What lessons from your experience in Tehran do you most want to communicate to the wider public? Do you see a relationship between the level of domestic repression and the nuclear program?

The future of Iran’s nuclear program is probably the most dangerous threat to international security in this decade and all sides of the conflict wish to find a peaceful, political settlement. That said the United States, I think rightly, has rejected a policy of containment and has warned that it will take military action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons if there is proof that Iran has decided to weaponize and there is no other alternative. Thankfully we are not there yet but the threat to international security should not be minimized.

If you argue, however, that provoking a showdown with Iran will force it to choose between surrender or defeat, then you are making a miscalculation. Iran's leaders are likely to gamble that they can trade tactical defeat in a military conflict for strategic and political victory and there are reasons to think that this is a bet they might win.  

Iran already has the knowledge and human capability to create nuclear weapons – this was the conclusion of the World Wide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community this past March – and you can’t bomb knowledge successfully. An American or Israeli tactical victory that damages or destroys Iran’s nuclear facilities would at best only delay Iran's nuclear program, not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, if Iran decided to go for it.  This was the main conclusion of the U.S. Iran Project’s bipartisan report “Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action against Iran”, released last September. According to this report an Israeli attack might delay Iran’s program by up to 2 years while an American attack might lengthen the delay to as much as four years but neither would achieve the United States’ strategic objective, which is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

The military option could also fail on the political level because it would likely break up the unity of the international community against Iran – Russia and China would surely oppose it - and give Iran's hardliners the cover to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and stop international inspection of their program. The human cost to Iranian civilians of an attack is another element of the political fallout that will be crucial to how Iran will use the conflict. In a word there will actually be "fallout" if Iran’s nuclear sites are bombed. Unlike the facilities Israel bombed in Iraq and Syria, Iran’s sites are in operation not just under construction. There is likely to be significant radiological and chemical fallout around sites in Isfahan, Arak, Bushehr and elsewhere, which will cause significant civilian casualties. Iranian leaders will use them to rally the Iranian population to its cause and prevent Iranian political evolution for yet another generation.

This is where the Iranian nuclear dispute intersects with human rights. The dispute begets Iran’s international isolation which in turn empowers Iranian hardliners. We need to find a satisfactory political solution to the nuclear issue that breaks this cycle and brings Iran out of isolation and back into the international community.

Also in the series


Human Rights and Historical Amnesia

Kaveh Shahrooz on why it is essential to revisit Iran's painful past to get to a democratic future.

Nationalism & Human Rights in Iran in Historical Context

Ali Ansari on the historical context of the Iran's push for human rights.

John Baird on Canada’s New Dialogue with Iran

Minister John Baird on Canada's advocacy on the issue of human rights in Iran.

The Key to Religious Freedom in Iran

Geoffrey Cameron and Robert Joustra on why the rights of Iran's religious minorities won't be respected until those of the majority are as well.

Why Iranian Women Can't Have Any of It

Gissou Nia on why denying women the right to run for President is only a small part of the regime's apparatus of repression.