The actions of the Canadian government on September 7, 2012 to sever diplomatic relations with Iran and expel Iranian diplomats was lauded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the United States government and supporters of Israel as a principled choice against an oppressive regime. However, the timing of the decision and the circumstances surrounding it begs a deeper analysis of whether it was an entirely ethical move or was simply a classic international relations decision based on rational self-interest.
Severing Relations with Iran
Many in the Canadian media criticized the decision as brash and hasty, resulting in a loss of Canadian influence in Iran. It is certainly a loss of a diplomatic presence in Iran, however it is questionable how much push Canada actually had with the Iranian government after years of worsening relations. What can be said is that this decision will serve to boost Canada’s already-strong relations with Israel and the United States.
The Canadian government cited a number of factors in its decision. Namely: the Iranian government’s assistance to President Assad of Syria, a refusal to comply with UN resolutions relating to its nuclear program, threats against Israel, racist rhetoric, incitement of genocide, overall human rights violations, support for terrorist groups, and disregard for the Vienna Convention relating to the safety of diplomatic personnel. Every one of these reasons expressed in official government communications contain a moral/ethical component, however, the decision in itself cannot be viewed as entirely one based on lofty principle. As with any governmental decision, an element of rational-self interest and political spin is always at play.
Canada-Iran and Canada-Israel Trade
A logical starting place in examining factors behind the Canadian government’s decision to take drastic action against Iran is trade. When looking at the numbers, one can conclude that room exists for Canadian-Israeli trade figures to increase, while Canadian-Iranian trade numbers will likely decrease even if the Canadian government maintained status-quo relations. In 2011, Canadian-Iranian bilateral trade was around $167 million, while Canadian-Israeli trade was over $1.38 billion. When viewed on a per-capital basis, Canadian trade with Israel is astronomically higher than trade with Iran. Canada has also spent the last five years implementing UN Security Council resolutions authorizing tougher sanctions on Iran and consistently strengthening its measures in 2011 and 2012. On top of Canada’s actions, Iran faces tough sanctions from much larger trade players and measures that effectively serve to cripple its already pariah-like banking sector. Moving money in and out of Iran has become very difficult and the Iranian Rial’s exchange rate has been pounded as sanctions bite harder.
At the same time as Canada and the international community impose greater sanctions on Iran, Canada and Israel are celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement (CIFTA), a record bounty in bilateral trade, and unprecedented cooperation. Furthermore, traditionally large importers of oil such as the European Union have moved to ban imports of Iranian crude and insurance for tankers traveling to and from Iran has become increasingly difficult to procure. Even Indian players, such as MRPL have moved away from importing Iranian oil.
In short, helping relations with Israel by moving to isolate Iran diplomatically has little downside for the already small Canadian-Iranian trade, while improving relations with Israel can serve to potentially strengthen already strong trade ties and will have little-to-no effect on Canadian trade.
Trends in the International Community
The decision taken by the Canadian government may also have to do with Canada’s desire to be seen as an international leader on the Iran issue, especially as the international community strengthens its position on Iran as reports emerge of an accelerating nuclear program. There has been speculation that Iran will see similar diplomatic withdrawals from other countries. The storming of the British Embassy in 2011 may have begun a chilling effect on diplomatic representation in Tehran and rumors of war will only further such fears as the regime may lash out against perceived friends of Israel, the UK and the US. Canada’s decision may be partially based on a desire to safeguard its embassy staff in a lead up to a hot war with Iran and also as an attempt to be viewed as a leader in what is increasingly becoming a multinational consensus.
Iran has also been viewed in an increasingly negative light regionally, given the increasing grassroots push for democratization in the Middle East. Iran’s support of the Assad regime and Shi’a groups in Iraq and Lebanon is under great scrutiny as major regional players such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey back Syrian rebels. Short of contributing material supplies to rebel groups, this decision by Ottawa sends a message to important partners in the Middle East and Europe and goes a way in demonstrating Canada’s support for what many are already terming the “winning side” in the Syrian Civil War.
The United States and Iran
Cutting diplomatic ties with Iran undoubtedly helps Canadian-American relations as Canada demonstrates it is marching lockstep with the U.S. State Department on the issue. Moreover, it benefits the Obama Administration’s view of Canada as a friend, given Canada’s support for President Obama’s push to isolate Iran economically and diplomatically any may have even greater positive spin with a potential Romney Administration that has promised to take an even more hawkish tone with Iran. The United States has had no diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic since the storming of its embassy and resulting hostage crisis over 30 years ago and has served as the rhetorical scapegoat of the regime in Tehran over the same period.
Iran: A History of “Bad Behaviour”
Iran behaving badly, to paraphrase Stephen Harper, is not new. None of the reasons cited by the Canadian government could be said to be unique to 2012. Iran has supported the Assad regime under both Hafez and Bashar, it has supported Hezbollah since 1982, its nuclear program is hardly new, the regime has violated the Vienna Convention many times since the Revolution, and it has been consistently repressive to dissidents. Although Canadian-Iranian relations have been spiraling since the murder of Zahra Kazemi in 2003, no one factor could be said to have been decisive in the Canadian government’s decision. Perhaps Ottawa’s move was so shocking to many because of the conspicuous absence of a triggering event.
A Principled Decision?
The Canadian government’s decision to sever ties with Iran cannot be said to be a decision entirely based on an moral principles. It is very plausible, by examining the circumstances surrounding the decision, that a more nuanced and realist-based calculus likely took place. Trade considerations, the inertia of the wider international community and the need to support close allies most certainly played a role, at least as much as Canada’s commitment to anti-racism and human rights. Moving public opinion away from simply digesting the “warm and fuzzy” political spin is crucial as the public must realize that the ultimate altruism in foreign policy should be rational self-interest. Only after this public awakening takes place can making Kissinger electable take place.