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Security fears behind embassy closure

Harper, Baird detail surprising move in Iran

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MONTREAL -- Canada decided to close its embassy in Iran a few weeks ago after spending several months re-evaluating its presence in the country amid growing tension, the federal government said Friday.

Comments by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird elaborated on a decision that caught observers off-guard.

They cast the move as a security decision in remarks they made Friday, a day on which western embassies came under attack in the Muslim world.

Baird said Canada has always been committed to the Iranian people despite its problems with their government but was concerned about Iran's unwillingness to help protect foreign embassies from attack. That was a factor in closing Canada's mission in Tehran a week ago, he said, a move that drew a rebuke from Iranian officials.

"We couldn't have possibly been clairvoyant enough to predict the upheaval going on around that region when we made the decision three or four weeks ago and then announced it 10 days ago," Baird said after a speech to an international relations group.

"But the one thing you see in Cairo, you see in Tunisia, you see in Benghazi and Tripoli, in Khartoum, is the governments and their security forces are doing what they can to protect these diplomatic installations. They don't do that in Tehran."

Baird said the federal government began re-evaluating its presence in Iran several months ago, especially after Iranian authorities did nothing to stop an incursion against the British Embassy last November.

He said Iran's record of non-assistance to foreign embassies goes back decades. The most famous example came in 1979 when militants stormed the U.S. Embassy during the Iranian revolution and took 52 people hostage for 444 days.

Canadian Embassy staff helped some of the Americans flee the country in what has since famously become known as "The Canadian Caper." That episode is the focus of a new film, Argo.

"Seven or eight months ago, we made the decision to draw down our staff. We ended the immigration program in Tehran," Baird said. "We went down to a skeletal staff of seven or eight."

A further step that played into the decision was Parliament's passage of the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which requires Canada to list countries that are state sponsors of terrorism.

"Iran is clearly a state sponsor of terrorism," he said. "The facts are unequivocal in that regard. I don't know how you'd call a state a state sponsor of terrorism and then leave men and women on the ground there."

Baird also said there were concerns about the safety of the embassy building because it sits next to a road.

"We spent a lot of time debating it and thinking about it but at the end of the day it just became uncomfortable to leave it open," he said.

"We made a difficult decision that I don't apologize for. We believe it was the right decision."

When the closure was announced, Iran's Fars news agency said the country's parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, cancelled a planned visit to Canada in protest.

Tehran's foreign ministry spokesman also accused the Harper government of "extremist" views and said it was "unwise"' for Canada to have set a five-day deadline for Iranian diplomats to leave the country.

The Iranian foreign ministry also said the closure was "unprofessional, unconventional, and unjustifiable."

The Foreign Affairs Department has warned Canadians against travelling to Iran, singling out dual Canadian-Iranians as especially vulnerable because Tehran does not recognize their new citizenship.

Harper, at another event near the U.S. border, echoed Baird, saying Iran had a dismal record of respecting diplomatic immunity and it was vital the embassy staff be protected.

The prime minister expressed concern about the security of diplomats, given events in the Middle East, and he drew links to the embassy closure.

"It's my responsibility to ensure that our people are protected," he said.

"Obviously we've closed one mission -- that's in Iran -- where we thought the risks are particularly high, mainly because the government in the past... has not recognized diplomatic immunities and protections."

Canada also closed its embassy in Cairo on Thursday and will evaluate on a day-to-day basis when to reopen it.

"Obviously the security of our personnel is the top priority," Baird said.

"We're horrified with the violence we've seen but at least the state (of Egypt) is providing a modicum of support for the diplomatic community there."

Baird said Canada is not contemplating withdrawing embassy staff from Egypt at the current time.

In a broad speech on foreign policy Friday, Baird said Canada must play an active role in promoting fundamental liberties around the world even if it makes people uncomfortable.

"Doing what is right does not mean forcing our values on others," he said.


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2012 A19

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