Foreign relations and diplomatic ties between Canada and Iran date back to 1955; before that, the Canadian Consular and Commercial Affairs in Iran was handled by the British Embassy. A Canadian diplomatic mission was built in Tehran in 1959 and raised to embassy status in 1961.
Independent relations between Iran and Canada did not begin until 1955; up to that point all Canadian interests in Iran were handled through the British Embassy in Tehran. It was only after Canada achieved greater independence in its foreign affairs that it established a diplomatic mission in Tehran in 1959, later upgraded to an embassy in 1961. When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Iranian Revolution took hold early in 1979, driving the Shah from the country, the Canadian Embassy scurried to evacuate the 850 Canadian workers in Iran, while those inside the embassy planned to wait it out. Six American diplomats took refuge in the Canadian embassy after Iranian student protesters stormed the U.S. embassy, and the Canadian government, coordinating with the Central Intelligence Agency, evacuated them from the country safely using Canadian passports with forged Iranian visas. The embassy staff were quickly evacuated for fear of retribution against Canadians. This covert rescue became known as the "Canadian Caper", and while it improved Canada's relations with the United States, Canada–Iran relations became more volatile.
Due to rocky relations after the Iranian Revolution, Iran did not establish an embassy in Canada until 1991 when its staff, which had been living in a building on Roosevelt Avenue in Ottawa's west end, moved into 245 Metcalfe Street in the Centretown neighbourhood of Ottawa, which was upgraded to embassy status. In Tehran, the Canadian Embassy had been located at 57 Shahid Sarafaz Street and Ostad Motahari Avenue. The mission was staffed by a chargé rather than a full ambassador.
Resumption of diplomacy
From 1980 to 1988, Canada and Iran did not have normal diplomatic ties, though relations were not formally severed. The Canadian government was reluctant to reopen an embassy after the Iranian government had kidnapped and tortured protected diplomats. In 1988 Canada and Iran agreed to resume diplomatic relations and the Canadian embassy in Tehran was re-opened. The nations formally exchanged ambassadors in 1996. Canadian concerns over human rights abuses in Iran, its record on nuclear non-proliferation, and its opposition to the Middle East peace process have led to a policy of "controlled engagement" by Canadian diplomats, such as limiting the range of conversation and restricting bilateral ties; for instance, preventing the establishment of direct air links between countries or the opening of Iranian consulates and cultural centres in Canada other than the main embassy. Canada has also continued to express its concern about human rights in Iran and in particular, such problems as the independence of the judiciary, arbitrary detention, freedom of expression, treatment of women and treatment of persons belonging to religious and ethnic minorities, such as members of the Bahá'í Faith.
Zahra Kazemi was an Iranian-Canadian freelance photographer from Montreal, Canada. During a student protest in June 2003, she was arrested while taking pictures outside a prison in Tehran. Three weeks later, she was killed in custody.
Iranian authorities insist that her death was accidental and that she died of a stroke while being interrogated. However, Shahram Azam, a former military staff physician who used his purported knowledge of Kazemi's case for seeking asylum in Canada in 2004, stated that he examined Kazemi's body and observed obvious signs of torture, including a skull fracture, broken nose, signs of rape and severe abdominal bruising.
Kazemi's death was the first time an Iranian's death in custody attracted wide international attention. Because of her joint citizenship and the circumstances of her death, she aroused international controversy. In November 2003, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression honoured Kazemi with the Tara Singh Hayer Memorial Award in recognition of her courage in defending the right to free expression.
Canada and Iran took the dispute over Zahra Kazemi to the international stage when Canada drafted a United Nations resolution condemning the human rights abuses in Iran and showing concern for Iran's use of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, in particular the practice of amputation and flogging. Gholamhossein Elham, the Iranian judiciary spokesman, was quoted as saying "The Canadian government has the worst, most backward and racist judiciary system." Iran further accused a Canadian police officer of gunning down 18-year-old Iranian Kayvan Tabesh on July 14 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The police officer said he was acting in self-defence after the teenager allegedly charged at him with a machete. Iran also presented a 70-page report before the adoption of the resolution, detailing alleged human rights abuses in Canada in an attempt to discredit the main backer of the resolution.
In a case similar to that of Kazemi, a prominent Canadian-Iranian blogger, Hossein Derakhshan, was detained by police in Tehran in 2008 over remarks he made about the Shiite faith, according to the Iranian Judiciary.
"Controlled engagement" and United Nations Resolution 1737
On May 17, 2005, Canada tightened its controlled engagement policy by limiting talks with Iran to four subjects:
- Human rights in Iran;
- Iran's nuclear programme and its compliance with non-proliferation obligations;
- The case of Zahra Kazemi;
- Iran's role in the region.
In October 2005, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a speech at a conference entitled "The World Without Zionism". During the speech he made comments that were widely interpreted as anti-semitic by the Jewish community and the Western world in general. Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin summoned the Iranian ambassador in Canada and gave a formal reprimand.
On December 26, 2006, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1737, demanding that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program or face economic sanctions. On February 22, the Governor-in-Council made new regulations under the United Nations Act: the Regulations Implementing the United Nations Resolution on Iran. Together with existing relevant provisions of the Canada Shipping Act, the Export and Import Permits Act and the Nuclear Safety and Control Act, these provisions allowed Canada to bring economic sanctions against Iran as requested in resolution 1737. The sanctions include a ban on any trade that could contribute to Iran's activities in enrichment, reprocessing, heavy water or the development of nuclear weapons delivery systems. The regulations also deal with freezing assets and notification of travel by Iranian officials in Canada.
In June, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the Islamic Republic News Agency that Canada was "hiding some spies at their embassy in Tehran and allowing them to escape". Mottaki told the IRNA that he warned his Canadian counterpart at the UN General Assembly in 2005 that "Canada should be aware of its limits and realize what country it was dealing with." On November 30, 2006, the conservative-dominated parliament in Iran accused the Canadian embassy of being a "den of spies" for the United States and launched a query to investigate. Iranian MPs would meet with the Iranian Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejeie to discuss the charges.
In 2007, moves to warm relations between the two countries occurred with the Supreme Court in Iran calling for another review of the death of Zahra Kazemi, and an attempt to again exchange ambassadors. Canada rejected two Iranian candidates, however, after Canadian intelligence suggested they may have been involved with the radical student uprising that stormed the U.S. embassy in 1979. Iran then refused to review the credentials of the Canadian candidate John Mundy, an act which Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier claimed was "retaliation for Ottawa's rejection of Iran's top choices". He was later expelled from Tehran.
In 2010, amendments to the Special Economic Measures Act of 2004 restricted financial transactions and economic activities between Canada and Iran that are considered to benefit the Iranian government. In response to the Act, Toronto-Dominion Bank has closed a number of accounts of Iranian-Canadian customers in Canada to comply with the sanctions.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, also imposes more bans on Iran & freezes all remaining trade with Iran. Had already imposed a series of trade sanctions, in 2012, bilateral trade was worth around C$135 million ($130 million). Will freeze all remaining trade with Iran to protest the Tehran's nuclear ambitions and its human rights record, John Baird said. "The absence of progress ... leads Canada to ban effectively immediately all imports and exports from Iran," Baird told reporters. Statistics Canada data for 2012 shows exports to Iran were worth around C$95 million, mostly in the form of cereals, oil seeds and fruit as well as chemical products and some machinery. Iranian exports totaled C$40 million with fruits, nuts and textiles dominating. Baird delivered his message to an approving audience in Washington at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Baird won an extended standing ovation for reiterating the government’s view that Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon is the most dangerous threat to global security.
Mr. Baird’s premise that the correct approach towards Iran is to increase pressure on it until its government either surrenders or collapses. The United States, Britain, France and Germany are following a different approach. They are committed to negotiation with Iran’s current government and are willing to accommodate legitimate Iranian interests. Their aim is to settle the nuclear issue, reintegrate Iran into the international economy and support Iranian reform. Their approach is fully consistent with support for Iranian human rights. In 2003, after years of patient negotiation between Iran and the European Union, Iran agreed to all of this and also made a direct overture to the United States. The agreement lasted until 2005 when Ayatollah Khamenei became convinced that Europe was negotiating in bad faith and only acting for the United States, who remained unambiguously hostile.
Following the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Canadian embassy provided cover to six American consular staff and assisted in their escape from the country during the Iran hostage crisis. The Canadian embassy in Tehran was closed for eight years thereafter.
Iran established an embassy in Canada in 1991, and in 1996 the two countries reestablished normal diplomatic relations and exchanged ambassadors. The relationship experienced further turmoil in 2003, when Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was killed in custody in Iran.
On September 7, 2012, Canada severed diplomatic ties with Iran, closed its embassy in Tehran, and expelled Iranian diplomats from Canada, citing Iranian foreign policy, support for the Syrian government, violations of human rights, threats against Israel, the Iranian nuclear program, and security concerns for its diplomats in the country. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said that the Iranian government is "unambiguously, a clear and present danger" and that "the appeal of our conscience requires us to speak out against what the Iranian regime stands for." Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird announces Canada is breaking diplomatic relations with Iran, Friday, September 7, 2012, Calling Iran "the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world" - Canada's foreign affairs office issued a statement listing grievances with Iran. According to a 2012 BBC World Service poll, only 9% of Canadians view Iran's influence positively, with 81% expressing a negative view. In the Calgary Herald “‘Canada,’ John Baird said, ‘views the government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today.’”, The Canadian embassy in Tehran remains closed and Iranian diplomats have been put on notice to leave. James George, who served as Canada’s ambassador to Iran between 1972 and 1977 said “It’s stupid to close an embassy in these circumstances.”
2012 embassy closure
On September 7, 2012, Canada closed its embassy in Iran and declared all remaining Iranian diplomats in Canada personae non gratae, ordering them to leave the country within five days. Ten Canadian diplomats had already left Iran when Canada declared the closure of its embassy. This move was another step by Canada to isolate Iran in addition to economic sanctions.
John Baird, Canada's foreign minister, called Iran "the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today," citing Iran's material support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, non-compliance with United Nations resolutions regarding its nuclear program, continuing threats to Israel, and fears for the safety of Canadian diplomats following attacks on the British embassy in Iran in violation of the Vienna Convention. In addition, Canada formally listed the Iranian regime as a state sponsor of terrorism under the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act. The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade advised all Canadians against traveling to Iran. Consular services will be assured by the Embassy of Canada in Turkey and the department's Emergency Watch and Response Centre.
After Canada's announcement of closure, a note written in Persian was posted on the door of Iran's embassy in Ottawa as follows: "Because of the hostile decision by the government of Canada, the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Ottawa is closed and has no choice but to stop providing any consular services for its dear citizens."
Ramin Mehmanparast, spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs described it as "the hostile" action of the "racist government in Canada" which is following "the pursuit of Zionist and British dictated policies."  In addition, the ministry described the Canadian decision as "an abuse of international law" and alleged that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government is known for "extremist and failed policies." The ministry also said that Canada is a "threat to international security and stability." A senior Iranian lawmaker, Chairman of the Majlis (parliament) Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy Alaeddin Boroujerdi, alleged that "Canada is under the control of Britain and that the governor [sic] appointed by the British queen," and Canada was "blindly" following Britain.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Canada for the decision, calling it a "moral, courageous step" which sends a message to the international community that it can not allow "the dark regime in Iran to get nuclear weapons." Netanyahu called on other members of the international community to follow Canada's lead and "set moral and practical red lines" to Iran.
On 17 September 2012, Canada claimed interests in Iran are represented by the Italian Embassy in Tehran. On October 22, 2013, Oman agreed to serve Iranian interests in Canada at their embassy in Ottawa after serving 15 months (July 2012 - October 2013) for the UK.
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