TORONTO — The decision last week by the Harper government to break diplomatic ties with Iran was a knee-jerk, hypocritical decision that looks like a sop to "Israel-first, Canada-later" voters in swing ridings.
The decision, however, is unlikely to affect the debate in Israel. The decision also seems to help those in the U.S. who are beating the drums for war on Iran. As usual, they pose as champions of freedom.
I am no fan of the Mullahs who, since the 1979 revolution, have operated a repressive regime. But they overthrew another repressive regime, run by the Shah, a U.S. puppet. Iran is also surrounded by repressive regimes, also fast friends of the U.S., such as Saudi Arabia.
The great sin of the Mullahs was not the repression of Iranians. It was the nationalization of U.S. oil companies. Iran’s oil was controlled by British companies since colonial times. In 1953, the U.S. and Britain overthrew Iran’s democratic government after it nationalized Anglo-Iranian Oil. They installed the Shah, who promptly reversed the nationalization and transferred most of the oil rights to U.S. companies.
After the 1979 revolution, Iran came under siege by the U.S. Had the Mullahs allowed the oil revenues to keep flowing abroad, they would probably have been praised like the Shah, Saudi princes, Hosni Mubarak, Saddam Hussein (while he behaved), and other dictators sponsored by the U.S.
Let us turn to some reasons offered by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird for cutting ties with Iran. I shall contrast relevant aspects of the U.S. and Canadian record.
Baird says that Iran violated the Vienna convention on consular relations. So too has the U.S., blatantly.
In 1999, Arizona put to death a German citizen named Walter LaGrand. It did so shortly after the International Court of Justice asked the U.S. to suspend the execution so the court could consider an international complaint by Germany. The U.S. federal government did little to discourage the execution. Later, the international court found that the U.S. had violated the Vienna Convention by failing to give LaGrand, along with others on death row, proper access to consular advice.
Baird says that Iran gives military assistance to Syria’s Assad regime. Not long ago, U.S. and Canadian agencies supplied Syrian military intelligence with questions, under torture, for prisoners labeled "terrorist." Recall also that Saudi Arabia’s government has armed the menacing elements of Syria’s opposition, shortly after it invaded Bahrain to suppress that country’s Arab Spring.
Baird says that Iran supports a terrorist organization, Hezbollah. This is another label. Hezbollah was founded in the 1980s to resist an Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Just six countries, led by Israel and the U.S., have classified Hezbollah as terrorist. Whatever Hezbollah’s abuses, they fall well short of, for example, the U.S.-backed death squads that terrorized Central America in the 1980s and 1990s. The death squads killed tens of thousands of civilians.
And, the death squads recently returned to Central America after the military coup in Honduras in 2009. Nearly every country in the hemisphere condemned the military junta. The Harper government supported it from early days. In 2011, it even inked a trade deal with the generals.
Baird says finally that Iran ignores human rights. On this, Iran has company. Perhaps the most heinous international crime is to wage an unlawful war. The illegal invasion of Iraq led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. It caused untold suffering and destroyed a country. It ruined the status of Iraqi women, left mass deformities in newborns, and led to another corrupt and repressive regime.
Stephen Harper, we should recall, supported the war on Iraq. He gave cover for U.S. right-wingers then, and his government is giving cover for them now on Iran.
These examples are not meant to compare Iran, Saudi Arabia, Canada, and the U.S. History is complex, like the world. The point is that Baird’s charges against Iran are vague, simplistic, and easily manipulated.
For decades, Canada was respected for its balance and decency in international affairs. We supported peace and diplomacy and were not so beholden to the U.S., let alone the crazed crowd that now dominates the Republican Party.
If Canada was an international boy scout, we are becoming the noisy sidekick of a schoolyard bully.
Gus Van Harten is a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. He also taught international law at the London School of Economics.