Alberta Politics
The Canadian Embassy in Tehran during the 1979 Iranian Revolution (Photo: Screenshot of CBC video).

Canadians want answers about tragic Iran air crash, but Canada has little influence with no embassy in Tehran

Posted on January 09, 2020, 1:45 am
5 mins

In the wake of yesterday’s air tragedy in Iran that took the lives of at least 63 Canadians, nearly half of them from Edmonton, and many others bound for Canada, all Canadians want and deserve answers to what caused Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS 752 to crash.

Likewise, it is reasonable for Canadians to want their government to make a positive contribution to helping to end the crisis that had brought Iran and the United States to the brink of war at the moment the doomed aircraft was taking off from Tehran’s international airport.

Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, arguably the principal author of Canada’s lack of influence in Iran (Photo: Remy Steinegger, Creative Commons).

Both of these things are made far more difficult by the 2012 decision of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, motivated by domestic politics, to close Canada’s embassy in the Iranian capital and expel Iran’s diplomats from Canada.

“Iran is among the world’s worst violators of human rights,” the Harper Government’s foreign affairs minister, John Baird, said at the time to justify the embassy closing and the decision to declare Iran’s diplomats in Canada persona non grata. “It shelters and materially supports terrorist groups.”

So did the Iranian leadership’s theological and regional rivals in Saudi Arabia, as was well understood at the time. But the Harper Government had little to say about that. Canada had a lively trade relationship with Saudi Arabia to protect that included sales of a couple of billion dollars in armoured vehicles we arguably never should have sold in the first place given that country’s similarly appalling human rights record.

The late Ken Taylor, who was Canada’s ambassador to Iran during the 1979 Iranian Revolution (Photo: Wikipedia).

Closing the Canadian Embassy in Iran was obviously dangerous because it’s unwise to stop talking to foreign governments just because you disagree with their policies. All through the Cold War, Canada and other Western nations maintained embassies in Moscow for that reason.

The decision to sever diplomatic relations with Iran was also misguided, because it wasn’t done for sound reasons but to influence domestic politics and please other countries that don’t necessarily have Canadians’ interests at heart.

Ken Taylor, the late Canadian ambassador in Tehran during the 1979 Islamic revolution who helped smuggle American embassy staff out of the country, diplomatically expressed his disapproval of the Harper Government’s decision at the time, suggesting that when everything else fails, diplomats on the ground in a foreign capital can still gather intelligence for their country, not to mention help their citizens who get in trouble there.

“As a diplomat, I think you never give up,” Mr. Taylor observed to the CBC in 2012.

“Whether or not this is the best means to send a message is of course up to the government’s cabinet,” he said with great diplomacy. “It’s more than just a practical or technical severance of the relationship.” Mr. Taylor died in 2015.

Mr. Harper’s error has never been corrected in part because the Conservatives prepared the political ground in Canada to score points if anyone dared to try, and partly because their Liberal successors have lacked the courage to take the bull by the horns. Our diplomatic interests in Iran are now in the hands of the Italian Embassy.

Justin Trudeau’s government let a symbolic opportunity to fix this mistake slip by last year when the Saudis sent Canada’s ambassador packing because they disapproved of critical tweets by then Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.

Now that the world’s peace is threatened by events in the Persian Gulf and Canadians who lost loved ones in the tragic air crash deserve answers, there is very little Canada can do about it. Our influence has essentially been reduced to zero.

This is a small tragedy that compounds a very great one.

11 Comments to: Canadians want answers about tragic Iran air crash, but Canada has little influence with no embassy in Tehran

  1. Merrill Smith

    January 9th, 2020

    Great minds David, I was thinking the exact same thing this morning. When was the last time we had a government we could be proud of?


    • Murphy

      January 9th, 2020

      Is the correct answer, “never”? The Canadian state apparatus has provided personnel and resources to just about every revolting adventure undertaken by the Anglo-American corporate empire since Confederation.

      “British officials considered launching a publicity campaign to cover up the true conditions of concentration camps in which thousands of women and children died during the Boer War, new documents have revealed.”

      “Sir Edouard Percy Girouard rose to fame by helping Britain conquer Sudan. The Royal Military College of Canada graduate and former Canadian Pacific Railway engineer oversaw the construction of two hard-to-build rail lines from southern Egypt towards Khartoum, allowing British forces to bypass 800 km of treacherous boating up the Nile. Able to transport ammunition and guns into Sudan, the British killed 11,000 and wounded 16,000 in the final battle at Omdurman (only forty-eight British/Egyptian soldiers died).

      At an 1899 dinner in this city Canadian minister of militia Frederick Borden celebrated Girouard’s contribution to the slaughter in Sudan. “Major Girouard has added luster, not only to his own name, but also to Montréal, to the dominion of Canada.”

      During the 1899 – 1902 Boer War Girouard was Director of Imperial Military Railways. Afterwards he became Commissioner of Railways for the Transvaal and Orange River colonies, which are now part of South Africa.

      Girouard’s efficiency in the Sudan and South Africa impressed British under-secretary of state Winston Churchill who promoted the rail expert to high commissioner of Northern Nigeria in 1906. Two years later Girouard became governor of the colony, sparking a Toronto Globe headline that read: “Northern Nigeria: the country which a Canadian will rule”.

      Girouard enjoyed lording over the 10 to 20 million Africans living in the 400,000 square mile territory. In a letter to his father, Girouard described himself as “a little independent king.”

      “The boatmen and lumbermen–many of them Indians–were attached to British General Sir Garnet Wolseley’s Nile expedition. Their job was to help rescue Major-General Charles Gordon who was besieged at the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, located on the Nile approximately 2,000 kilometres south of Cairo, Egypt. The expedition marked the first time that a Canadian contingent served overseas.

      The Canadians, known at the time as the Nile Voyageurs, were hired to operate the boats that would carry the relieving force of British soldiers up the longest river in the world. Tough and reliable, these men were hired as a result of Wolseley’s experiences in Canada during the Red River Rebellion of 1870. That was when Wolseley led an expedition against Métis leader Louis Riel’s insurrection at Fort Garry, Manitoba.”

      True enough, there was very active opposition to the CSEF from left-wing and labour elements in British Columbia, where the troops had concentrated, and scant media support anywhere for the intervention. Many soldiers had apparently attended “Hands off Russia” meetings in Victoria, and when the troops had marched through Victoria to board ship, there were protests by francophone conscripts in the 259th Battalion who halted at the corner of Fort and Quadra streets. One conscript shouted “On y va pas à Siberia,” two companies refused orders to march, and the battalion commanding officer fired his pistol in the air and ordered loyal troops to remove their web belts and beat the mutineers into line, which “they did with a will,” said one junior officer in the 259th.

      They were then marched to the docks, guarded by troops with fixed bayonets. Thirteen men proceeded to Siberia in the ship’s cells and 10 faced field general court martials on arrival, receiving prison terms or field punishment as a result. In an editorial, the Toronto Globe acknowledged that a majority of the expedition’s soldiers “went unwillingly,” agreeing with them that the fight was one in which Canada “had no real interest.”

      “Canadians organized and oversaw the Junior Staff Officers course and a number of Canadians took up top positions in the Ghanaian Ministry of Defence. In the words of Canada’s military attaché to Ghana, Colonel Desmond Deane-Freeman, the Canadians in these positions imparted “our way of thinking”.
      After Nkrumah’s removal the Canadian high commissioner boasted about the effectiveness of Canada’s Junior Staff Officers training program at the Ghanaian Defence College. Writing to the Canadian under secretary of external affairs, McGaughey noted, “All the chief participants of the coup were graduates of this course.”

      Arguably the most disgusting of these efforts was the murder of Lumumba, resulting in the chaos in central Africa in which millions have lost thier lives to political violence:

      “The UN Chief of Staff, who was kept in place by Ottawa, tracked the deposed prime minister and informed Joseph Mobutu of Lumumba’s whereabouts. Three decades later the Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec, born Berthiaume told an interviewer: “I called Mobutu. I said, ‘Colonel, you have a problem, you were trying to retrieve your prisoner, Mr. Lumumba. I know where he is, and I know where he will be tomorrow. He said, what do I do? It’s simple, Colonel, with the help of the UN you have just created the core of your para commandos — we have just trained 30 of these guys — highly selected Moroccans trained as paratroopers. They all jumped — no one refused. To be on the safe side, I put our [Canadian] captain, Mario Coté, in the plane, to make sure there was no underhandedness.
      Not long thereafter Lumumba was executed by firing squad and his body was dissolved in acid.”

      “Ottawa played an important part in this sordid affair. In late 1996, Canada led a short-lived UN force into eastern Zaire, meant to bring food and protection to Hutu refugees. The official story is that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien organized a humanitarian mission into eastern Zaire after his wife saw images of exiled Rwandan refugees on CNN. In fact, Washington proposed that Ottawa, with many French speakers at its disposal, lead the UN mission. The US didn’t want pro- Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko France to gain control of the UN force.”

      That’s enough for now. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep down lunch if I touch on Haiti.

      • Keith McClary

        January 12th, 2020

        Iranians are still waiting for answers about Iran Air Flight 655:
        “The U.S. government issued notes of regret for the loss of human lives, but never formally apologized or acknowledged wrongdoing.”
        “This was finalized in a report by Admiral William Fogarty, entitled Formal Investigation into the Circumstances Surrounding the Downing of Iran Air Flight 655 on 3 July 1988 (the “Fogarty report”).[10] Only parts of this report have been released (part I in 1988 and part II in 1993).”
        And there were lies:
        “The Pentagon initially denied the Iranian claim that the U.S. has shot down the airliner, and declared that information from the fleet indicated it had shot down an attacking Iranian F14”
        “Three years after the incident, Admiral Crowe admitted on American television show Nightline that Vincennes was inside Iranian territorial waters when it launched the missiles.”

  2. Murphy

    January 9th, 2020

    Is it Spellcheck that always substitutes “Saudi Arabia” for that other country?

    “EDMONTON – B’nai Brith Canada is delighted to announce an ultra-impressive lineup of speakers for our 2019 Award of Merit Gala in honour of Stockwell Day, former federal cabinet minister and Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition.

    The keynote speaker will be Canada’s former Prime Minister, the Right Hon. Stephen Harper. Also paying tribute will be Alberta’s Premier, the Hon. Jason Kenney.

    The event will celebrate Mr. Day’s lifetime of friendship and solidarity with the Jewish community and Israel.”

    “Canada has sided openly with Israel in every one of its military operations since 2006. Harper’s Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, calls him Stephen, and the two speak regularly. And earlier this month, Harper appointed Vivian Bercovici, a Toronto lawyer and an outspoken Israel supporter, as Canada’s ambassador to Israel.”

    “Adelson, who alongside his wife Miriam are the biggest donors to Trump and the GOP, contributed $205 million to Republicans in the past two political cycles and reportedly sent $35 million to the Future 45 Super PAC that supported Trump’s presidential bid.”

    Maybe the Iranians have forgotten all about Ken Taylor by now, and would welcome more Canadian CIA assets back into the country?

    “In a hush-hush operation, an agent flown in by the CIA, code-named “Bob,” as well as Taylor’s chief accomplice Jim Edward, worked with Taylor as he smuggled his reports from Tehran to Ottawa. Much of this was in preparation for a commando raid to free American hostages held at the U.S. embassy.

    “It’s a convenient label,” said Taylor with a chuckle. “I was never employed by the CIA, nor was I in direct contact with the CIA.”

  3. Dave

    January 9th, 2020

    It never did make sense to me why Harper decided to close our embassy in Iran, exactly for the reasons you said. Countries need to maintain communication channels especially when things are not going smoothly. Perhaps it was the right wing version of what they like to call virtue signalling, ie. pandering to the base, or perhaps after talking tough and caving on human rights in China, Harper needed to seem tough with some other country and our trade with Iran was not that significant to sacrifice, so there was little economic cost to do so.

    Many of the countries in the Middle East have a bad record on human rights. I suppose this is part of what often tends to happen in petro states, particularly those with no history of or weak democratic institutions – you don’t need to levy huge taxes to maintain an expensive a police state, you just use oil money, or as the Americans might call it no taxation and no representation. Arguably Saudi Arabia is much worse than Iran in this regard, but their government is less bellicose to the west and buy a lot of things from us, including weapons that they could potentially use against their own people.

    Despite all this or perhaps because of the economic reasons we continue to engage with Saudi Arabia. Perhaps their new leadership will modernize the country and eventually take the harsher edges of its human rights records, but they could end up just as easily becoming another version of the Shah – pro western and somewhat progressive appearing on the surface, but with a brutal response to internal opposition.

    In any event, there is no legitimate reason not to have an embassy in Iran. We have them in many other places that have questionable or poor records on human rights. An embassy is not some sort of prize signalling tacit approval of what a foreign government does, it is a necessary part of the international diplomatic communication infrastructure and should only be closed where something particularly egregious happens that perhaps threatens the safety of Canadians or our interests, or it not needed because there is little travel or other interaction between our countries.

  4. Scotty on Denman

    January 9th, 2020

    We used to lament how Harper had made Canadian politics so partisan (he even ordered his caucus to refrain from even speaking to MPs from other parties—except, naturally, under his strict control in the HoC). Certainly tRump has made American politics completely partisan—that is, everybody else versus himself. Perhaps because the Canadian PMO has so much power in the Westminster-style parliament it seems as if Canada was one of the first countries whose leader had taken this undiplomatic turn—the polarization that the neo-right perceives as advantageous to its partisan purposes; the US congressional parliament of Harper’s day, while heading in this same direction, could still count on bipartisan cooperation to get legislation through (bearing in mind that the US government doesn’t fall if a bill fails to pass by a majority vote in either House of Congress like it does in Canada), but from “Dubya” Bush’s ill-considered invasion of Iraq (which PM Jean Chrétien famously refused to join), and his brain trust in Carl Rove, American politics had become as polarized as Harper’s HoC. Under tRump, US domestic politics has become viciously polarized, but with a difference: it’s now all about the ultra narcissistic and unruly tRump, himself. And to the extent his personal/national politics slops outside of the world’s most powerful hegemon, that’s as bad news as the man-child, himself.

    Like tRump, Harper’s Iranian policy was more about domestic, partisan polictics than about prudent international diplomacy; it extended to our southern neighbour to win its approval but had little diplomatic merit otherwise. But, in sharp contrast with the current tRumpian fiasco, Harper wasn’t looking at certain indictments the instant he left office like tRump is. The Orange One doesn’t need to make his nation more polarized—he’s achieved that already; rather, he is plainly seeking distraction from his mounting political and, more the point, his legal problems at home by thoughtlessly (and heartlessly) fomenting more trouble in the Middle East.

    I find it civil and a bit pathetic that people are still galled by tRump’s antics: “how far will he go?”—they ask, appalled at each new transgression of all that is holy and good. The answer is: he will do what he thinks will save him from serious legal trouble after he leaves office. And he doesn’t care a fig how many are hurt by it.

    Yet it looked obvious that his presser, after his assassination of the Iranian general, was done under duress—not of the consequences of what he’d done (he doesn’t ever admit mistakes), but, judging by the peeved look on his face and plain discomfort at having to stick to the teleprompter, and the phalanx of generals standing close behind him (ready to bundle him if he went off script), he had been cowed and didn’t like it. But at least he proved he can read a paragraph, even if he couldn’t resist in making this international tumult about himself, taking every opportunity to blame his predecessor (with lies immediately refuted by easily obtained facts). He is, in short, unrepentant.

    It is a fact he would go to any extent to engrandize himself, and more so to save him from oblivion. His administration’s containment strategy (of their boss) is still working but doubtlessly getting harder. It’s getting more desperate for everybody involved, most for those closest to him.

    But there’s little room for diplomacy now—that is, it’s more critical to keep him under wraps than to reconcile with Iran after so many sleights that will take years or decades to remedy. Neglected, diplomacy requires rebuilding, and in a crisis there’s precious little opportunity to do that. I suspect JT will be wishing he’d made better use of quieter times to start mending Canada’s relationship with Iran. Now the priority is guess-who.

    Eleven months of prayer might be recommended.

  5. Just Me

    January 9th, 2020

    Laying the blame for this whole absence of a Canadian embassy in Tehran can be put squarely on Harper’s b shoulders. In his never ending desire to be just like the ‘muricans, Harpo was ready to do anything to appease and please his GOP/evangelical masters. In doing do, he kneecapped Canada’s ability to assist Iran-Canadians. PMJT has been equally cowardly in standing up to thuggish American warlords, who have been torturing Iran since their CIA overthrew a democratically elected Iranian government.

    • Murphy

      January 10th, 2020

      You have to go back farther than 1953.
      “Iran’s aggressive military posture is often attributed to its quasi-theocratic revolutionary government. However, the Middle Eastern state also had the misfortune of experiencing three devastating, unprovoked invasions in the 20th century.

      The last and best known of these, the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians, many of them civilians. Iran eventual defeated Iraq despite both the United States and the Soviet Union supplying weapons to Iraq.

      The first Iranian invasion occurred near the end of World War I. The state — then called Persia — remained neutral in World War I, but that didn’t prevent British, Russian and Ottoman armies from entering Iran to seize its oil, food and roads.

      British and Russian soldiers confiscated most of Iran’s grain, as well as the pack animals they used to transport it, causing a famine of near-genocidal proportions. Combined with epidemics of typhoid and influenza, food shortages killed at least two million Iranians.”

  6. Dfjo

    January 9th, 2020

    Just being a titch pedantic, those AFV’s are a contract between General Dynamics Land Systems and the government of Saudi Arabia. Yes, there are concerns that the government of Canada and the employees have to answer to. That whole situation has the same odour as the Huawei mess.
    After hearing the most recent news updates, thoughts of the USS Vincenes come to mind. A whole series of mis-communications and , again, loss of life of noncombatants. The burden of proof rests on the Americans’ shoulders.

  7. Farmer Brian

    January 10th, 2020

    This article “To those who have perished since the Iranian Revolution” by Marina Nemat in Maclean’s certainly puts in perspective what has happened in Iran over the last 40 years. While it certainly appears that Iran shot down the Ukranian airliner I am not sure this will ever be proven one way or another. Using this event as a way of going after Harper seems a little ridiculous, having a Canadian embassy in Iran would not change the immense tragedy and loss of life in this crash nor would it prevent the Iranians from covering up the truth.

    • Murphy

      January 11th, 2020

      It does if one’s perspective is as limited as yours. The Americans removed the Shah, just as they put him in power. Khomeini was the next best choice for the US as an alternative to nationalists or social democrats who actually started the revolt. The Shah’s secret police, Savak, roasted people alive, which was just fine with their American and Israeli masters, who trained them. The Americans provided lists of people, alleged communist sympathizers, for Khomeini’s people to execute. Are you actually so obtuse as to believe that the absence of an embassy in Iran does not hinder the Canadian families who lost loved ones in this disaster?


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