No other countries likely to follow Canada’s lead in severing ties with Iran

No other countries likely to follow Canada’s lead in severing ties with Iran

Ottawa denies it shut embassy because of imminent Israeli attack; other Western countries disinclined to close their legations

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Embassy staff back a van into the underground garage at the Iranian embassy in Ottawa, Friday Sept.7, 2012 (photo credit: AP/The Canadian Press, Fred Chartrand)
Embassy staff back a van into the underground garage at the Iranian embassy in Ottawa, Friday Sept.7, 2012 (photo credit: AP/The Canadian Press, Fred Chartrand)

Canada’s dramatic step to cut diplomatic relations with Iran has bolstered Israel’s drive to isolate Tehran, but the move is just one small hack at the country’s veritable forest of ties with the international community. And the rest of the trees are likely to remain standing.

Most countries — including some of Israel’s closest allies — maintain diplomatic relations with Iran, and barring further dramatic developments it seems unlikely that they will follow Canada’s lead.

On Friday, Canada announced it would close its embassy in Tehran and gave Iranian diplomats five days to leave the land of maple syrup. But while Canada is shutting down ties, Australia, for example, which publicly condemns the Islamic Republic, is seeking to enhance them (at least according to the embassy’s website).

“Anti-Israel statements made by Iran’s leadership in recent days are unacceptable and inimical to efforts to deliver regional stability,” a spokesperson for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told The Times of Israel recently. Still, the government in Canberra entertains regular diplomatic relations with the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Among the ways by which the Australian embassy in Tehran protects the country’s national interests, it says, is “maintaining and enhancing bilateral relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Germany’s embassy provides surfers with ample information about visa requirements for German citizens seeking to visit Iran. ‘Entry or the application for visa with a passport that contains an Israeli entry stamp is not possible’

Likewise, France, South Korea, Austria, Norway, Spain, the Netherlands and most other important countries have embassies in Tehran.

Privately, diplomatic insiders explain, many of these countries argue that to sever ties, Canada-style, would be counter-productive, no matter how negatively they regard the regime: they would leave those of their citizens who are in Iran vulnerable, and would deny themselves of the capacity to understand, first-hand, where Iran is heading. Of course, for some of these countries, however, the desire to maintain some level of commercial relations with Iran is a factor, too.

The website of Berlin’s embassy in Tehran provides interested parties with ample information about visa requirements for German citizens seeking to visit Iran, noting that “entry or the application for a visa is not possible for passports that contain an Israeli entry stamp.”

“Italy is loved and admired by the Iranians,” the website of Rome’s ambassador to Tehran says.

The British embassy in Tehran has been closed since November 2011, when demonstrators stormed and vandalized the building to protest sanctions London had imposed on the regime. Since then, a British Interests Section (including “limited consular assistance” to UK citizens) has operated under the auspices of the Swedish embassy in Tehran.

The US cut all relations with Iran in 1980, as a direct result of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, during which Islamists held more than 50 Americans for 444 days in the embassy building. Since then, there is an Interest Section for US nationals in the Swiss embassy in Tehran.

Notwithstanding the maintenance of such contacts, many Western nations are indicating a readiness to increase economic pressure on the regime. On Saturday, European Union officials announced they would consider imposing additional sanctions over Iran’s refusal to curb its nuclear ambitions. No one in North America or Europe wants to see Iran attain nuclear weapons capabilities.

“Nuclear arms in the hands of the Iranian government is not an option and we will not accept this,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Sunday in Jerusalem.

But it is unrealistic to expect countries to entirely cut all relations with Iran over this issue, says Avi Primor, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany and the European Union.

“It’s possible but I don’t think it’s going to happen. These country just don’t see any advantage in such a move,” Primor said. “Most countries believe that severing ties doesn’t bring them any advantage. Generally, such a move leaves the country that severed relations in a position of weakness.”

Canada apparently did not care about its interests in Tehran, or had no expectations for the regime to ever give up its renegade course and return to the community of respectable nations, Primor suggested. “But the Europeans hope that Iran will improve one day. And then they will have great interest in this country, so they are in no hurry to completely sever relations.”

Indeed, it was more likely that Iran, furious at the European sanctions, could preempt such a move and itself sever ties with Europe, Primor added. “But in the position that they are in, they don’t dare doing that.”

Was Israel behind Canada’s drastic move?

Israel rushed to praised Ottawa for its sudden decision to suspend all diplomatic relations with Tehran. “Canada’s determination is very important in order for the Iranians to understand that they cannot continue their race after nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said on Friday, right after Canada’s announcement “This practical measure needs to serve as an example of international responsibility for the global community. It is important that the international community join in this pressure by setting Iran clear red lines.”

President Shimon Peres also praised Canada, declaring that its “moral” action should be an example to others.

Some observers suggested Jerusalem was behind Ottawa’s move.

“Canada appears to have a new foreign minister. His name is Benjamin Netanyahu,” a Canadian pundit charged in an op-ed. “His day job may be prime minister of Israel, but Canada’s abrupt actions against Iran seem to confirm that the [Stephen] Harper government’s outsourcing of Canada’s Middle East policy to Jerusalem is now complete.”

Several Canadian opposition politicians fumed about the lost potential to exert any influence on Iran. Ottawa New Democratic Party MP Paul Dewar noted, “For us to make a difference, we have to be there.” Added interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae: “The simple fact is we don’t cut off diplomatic relations with every country we disagree with.”

And in some Canadian social media postings, the move was read — or more likely misread — as indicating that Israel was about to strike at Iran; hence Canada was sending its citizens to safety. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird even confronted that notion, saying Sunday: “I can confirm that we have no knowledge whatsoever of any outside military action, whether it’s from the United States or from Israel… We just felt at this time it is no longer safe and secure to have these Canadians working there and that weighed heavily on me.”

Jerusalem denied that it pressured Ottawa into cutting ties with Iran. “It was their own, independent decision,” a spokesman for Netanyahu told The Times of Israel.

According to Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson, Israel has been suggesting several ways to combat the Iranian threat in conversations with all visiting world leaders. “We are very active on this issue, as is known,” Hirschson said. Jerusalem generally speaks of a three-pronged approached that includes political isolation, economic pressure and sanctions, and a credible threat of military action.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa in May 2010. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash 90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa in May 2010. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash 90)

“We’re actively identifying and presenting ideas on how to achieve Iran’s political isolation,” he said. “In our multilateral conversations, we put the ideas on the table. Most are on economic and not on political pressure, but for sure we don’t sit idly by while Iran races to nuclear weapons. Nobody wants to have a military confrontation, so yes, we’re definitely trying to identify where additional pressure can be applied and we’re saying this out loud. But in the end, we just present our ideas, and every country or multilateral body makes its own decisions.”

In the same statement in which Baird designated all Iranian diplomats “personae non gratae” because the regime is “the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today,” he also said that Tehran does not properly protect visiting diplomatic personnel.

“Under the circumstances,” Baird said, “Canada can no longer maintain a diplomatic presence in Iran. Our diplomats serve Canada as civilians, and their safety is our number one priority.”

Still, Canada hasn’t actually had an ambassador in Iran since 2007, the Iranian-born Israeli analyst Meir Javedanfar noted on his website, the Iran-Israel Observer. Bilateral relations had already been downgraded to consular level. “This was because of a number of reasons. A prominent one being the killing of the Canadian-Iranian journalist Zahra Kazemi by the Iranian regime’s intelligence agents,” according to Javedanfar. “In fact, Iran over the years has jailed a number of Canadian-Iranians, without giving the Canadian government access to visit them. Two of them are on death row on politically motivated charges.”

And Ottawa’s sudden suspension of all ties has put pressure on the lives of these prisoners — Saeed Malekpour and Hamid Ghassemi-Shall. “I am very disappointed,” Ghassemi-Shall’s wife, Antonella Mega, told reporters. “I had hoped there could be a dialogue between the two countries.”

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