The End of "Jaw-Jaw"

Jennifer Welsh on the decision to close the Canadian embassy in Iran.
By: /
September 9, 2012
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Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

The key question on everyone’s lips, following Foreign Minister John Baird’s surprise announcement on Friday that Canada was cutting all diplomatic ties with Iran, is ‘why now’?

Baird’s long list of reasons reveals the rather muddled way in which this government conceives of our core interests and the possibilities of diplomacy. Reason 1: Iran’s assistance to the Assad regime in Syria. Reason 2: Iran’s refusal to comply with UN resolutions related to its alleged nuclear programme. Reason 3: Iran’s continuing hostility towards Israel. Reason 4: Iran’s material support for terrorist groups. When combined, these transgressions make Iran, in Baird’s words, ‘the most significant threat to global peace and security today’.

They do not, however, constitute a clear case for the severing of diplomatic ties. As Churchill once famously quipped, to ‘jaw jaw’ is always better than to ‘war war’ – even when in a hostile relationship with another country. By withdrawing its embassy staff, Canada loses one mechanism for influencing Iranian policy (if it ever really had much influence). As Doug Saunders quipped in his recent commentary in the Globe and Mail, ‘Once you’ve pulled the plug, you’re out of the game.’

More significantly, however, Canada forfeits channels of communication (including to opponents of the current government in Tehran) and key sources of intelligence. The latter are particularly vital, given that the U.K. has downgraded is diplomatic relationship and that the U.S. has not had an embassy on the ground since 1979.  As a result, former Canadian ambassadors to Tehran, including John Mundy and Ken Taylor, have both criticized the Harper government’s decision as a strategic mistake. Indeed, last week’s move is a far cry from those dramatic days in 1979, when Canada kept it embassy open during the Iranian hostage crisis, giving six Americans sanctuary and smuggling them out of the country using Canadian passports.

We are now in a very different era, when our government shuns these subtler, behind-the-scenes contributions in favour of bold statements and actions that showcase our anti-terrorist credentials. As Baird made clear when elaborating on the decision to close our embassy, Canada is a country committed to fighting global terrorism and ‘holding perpetrators of terrorist acts to account’.

In particular, it’s important to see this move as part of a long-term lean towards Israel, and away from what Harperites view as a fuzzy and weak ‘middle’ position on the Arab-Israeli dispute. So, the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately praised Harper’s ‘bold leadership’, and called Canada an ‘example to the international community’ regarding ‘moral standards and international responsibility,’ will be music to the ears of Conservative strategists. And since the Harper government, even more than most governments, uses foreign policy for domestic advantage, it’s worth remembering that this pro-Israeli stance is believed to lead to electoral rewards (not so far down the road).

But this still doesn’t help us understand the timing of the Baird announcement. Here, it seems four things have come together.

First, Minister Baird cited another reason for the closing of the embassy: Iran’s ‘blatant disregard’ for the Vienna Convention, which regulates the treatment of diplomatic staff.  The Canadian embassy in Tehran is already quite small, without an accredited ambassador (as a result of our protests to the Iranians  over the torture and killing in 2003 of the photo journalist, Zahra Kazemi, who had dual Iranian-Canadian citizenship). Nevertheless, the government must have believed it was prudent to take pre-emptive action, in anticipation of tougher action by Western states against Iran in the coming months – action which might lead to retaliation against our diplomatic staff. What that tougher action might be is still unspecified (Baird was quick to deny any knowledge of an impending military strike against Tehran). It’s also curious that other states, particularly in Europe, have not felt the need to take such a visible step. Even after the ransacking of its embassy in Tehran in late 2011, the British government has not fully suspended diplomatic relations – in recognition of the importance of continuing to pursue a non-military path to resolving differences with Iran. Canada therefore appears to be taking more of a ‘worst case scenario’ approach than that of many of its Western allies.

Second, the move was likely taken as a prelude to more coercive measures by Canada itself, specifically with respect to sanctions. In making his statement on Friday, Minister Baird also listed Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism under our Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act (legislation that entails that Canadians affected by terrorism could, in theory, sue the Iranian regime). There is speculation that Canada will soon take the further step of listing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist entity. And once again, by removing our diplomatic staff on Iranian soil, we limit the potential for retaliatory action.

Third, there were particular voices inside the Harper government encouraging strong action. Most notable here is Defence Minister Peter MacKay, whose wife is part of a group of pro-democracy activists whose calls to close the Iranian embassy in Ottawa grew louder over the summer (following some sinister remarks by Iran’s cultural counselor in Ottawa about the need for Iranian expatriates to be ‘nurtured’ to be of greater service to their country).

Finally, Canada made its announcement at an international gathering – the APEC meeting in Russia – thereby enhancing the chances that it would be ‘noted’. Though this government has a penchant for threat inflation, and dramatic good vs. evil rhetoric, it is not deluded about the relatively modest set of tools Canada can employ in the West’s intensifying stand-off with Iran. The Harperites therefore wanted to make the most of the moment they had, in the spotlight, to demonstrate their hostility towards Iran.

While these factors might help to explain the timing, they do not convince me that this move has been beneficial for Canada or Canadians. To begin, there is the fate of the Canadian citizens in Iran (some of whom are imprisoned or operating in an environment of insecurity), who have relied on our diplomats to make representations on their behalf. The announcement will also make life more difficult for many in the Iranian diaspora in Canada who still seek access to their country of origin.

On the wider diplomatic front, Harper’s decision will not have helped our relationship with Russia, the host of last week’s APEC meeting and a country that has been supporting governments in both Syria and Iran. But after a ‘frank’ meeting between Putin and the Prime Minister during the APEC summit (during which Harper criticized Russia’s obstructionist policy with respect to the crisis in Syria), it’s clear that the Canadian government is willing to risk damaging its relations with Moscow.

But what about Washington? How does Canada’s tough talk help advance U.S. goals with respect to Iran? American officials have been doing all that they can to restrain the Israelis from taking military action and to keep negotiation alive  – particularly in the run-up to the presidential election. Prior to Friday, Canada was a supportive ally that had a line of communication into Tehran which the U.S. does not. Over the weekend, it has become awkward ally that is turning up the heat, when the U.S. (on the surface at least) seems to want to turn it down.

One remote possibility is that the U.S. is seeking to increase the temperature over Iran by proxy, and is using Canada as a tool in this strategy. But it’s hard to believe that Washington would view a decision by Ottawa to close its embassy as an effective way to exert more pressure on Tehran. To believe this theory is to give Canada a more central role in this particular diplomatic struggle, and a more prominent place in U.S. foreign policy calculations, than recent history warrants.

As for Iran, its reaction will play out in the months ahead. (The most immediate response has been the cancellation of an October visit to Canada by Iran’s parliamentary speaker.) The country is still on a high after hosting a recent meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and is therefore unlikely to see the Canadian announcement as a major blow to its world standing. As the NAM summit revealed, there are several countries around the globe that do not buy into the story that Iran constitutes the gravest threat to world peace. Indeed, even U.S. intelligence agencies have expressed doubt about the prospects for the development of an Iranian bomb in the near future.

But for the Harper government, these facts just complicate their overarching narrative that Canada is part of an epic struggle against the ‘bad guys’. For inspiration, both our prime minister and foreign minister also like to draw from Churchill, who they believe embodied the kind of moral clarity Canada should aspire to in foreign policy. In a speech to the UN a year ago, for example, Baird compared today’s critics of Israel, who in his view underestimate the threat from Iran, to the appeasers of fascism prior to the Second World War.

Unfortunately, our foreign policy leadership is drawing selectively from the words and experience of one of Britain’s greatest prime ministers. Churchill knew, from first hand experience in two world wars, the horrors of a non-peaceful solution. Hence the need to keep the ‘jaw jaw’ lines open, until there really is no other option.

Photo courtesy of Reuters