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reflections

Sep 11, 2012 | 06:45 GMT

Canada's Surprise Break With Iran

(Stratfor)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Monday that Canada has an extremist government. Responding to Ottawa's decision last Friday to break off diplomatic relations with Iran, Salehi said the government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is "defending international Zionism." On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commended the Harper administration for its decision.

Meanwhile, Harper and Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird continued public relations efforts regarding their government's sudden severance of ties with the Islamic republic. Baird denied that the move was pre-emptive and prompted by a known military threat against Iran. The prime minister explained that the decision grew out of concern for Canada's diplomats working in Tehran and in response to the Iranian regime's rogue behavior regarding both its nuclear program and the Syrian crisis. 

Cutting diplomatic relations altogether is an extreme response to diplomatic security concerns. If Canada's diplomats were in clear and present danger — which they weren't — standard procedure would call for the withdrawal of all nonessential staff. Iran's belligerence on the nuclear issue and its support for the Syrian regime do not directly concern Canada, given that Ottawa is not involved in either issue. Therefore, this was not likely a decision the Canadians made themselves.

Ottawa's relations with Tehran have not been good — in recent years they had been downgraded to the sub-ambassadorial level. However, Canada has notably maintained working diplomatic relations with Tehran throughout the history of the Islamic republic. Why then did Canada choose to break ties now?

Treating this development as a matter of Canadian-Iranian relations yields little insight. The break should instead be seen as part of a multilateral effort to pressure Iran as international tensions over the country's nuclear program and its regional ambitions in the Middle East have surged.

Iran has experienced a major reversal since the weakening of Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime. The country is also under a great deal of financial stress after the latest round of international sanctions, which have significantly undermined Iran's crude export capability. That said, Tehran has not been forced to negotiate on U.S. terms.

From Tehran's point of view, international pressure has become manageable over the years. Washington therefore needs to do something out of the ordinary to force the Iranians to change course — or at least to pause and reassess their options. Much of this strategy is based on Israeli threats to attack Iran and the deployment of American naval vessels in the Persian Gulf.

It is therefore likely that the United States coordinated with Canada on Ottawa's decision to end diplomatic relations with Iran. The surprise move was designed to gain the attention of the Iranian regime. Iran wasn't expecting this, and now its leaders are wondering whether this is a sign of things to come — and possibly an indication that its adversaries are seriously considering military intervention.

While Canada's intent is not entirely clear, breaking diplomatic ties with Iran is a low-cost move that helps the domestic and foreign policy prerogatives of Harper's government. The question now is whether other Western countries will follow Canada's lead.

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