PM owes us an explanation on Iran

If Stephen Harper and John Baird had a sliver of confidence in the ability of Canadians to absorb information and come to rational judgments, we would not, one week later, still be asking questions about the closing of our embassy in Iran.

If Stephen Harper and John Baird had a sliver of confidence in the ability of Canadians to absorb information and come to rational judgments, we would not, one week later, still be asking questions about the closing of our embassy in Iran.

Instead, aided and abetted by their friends in some quarters of the Canadian media, we are now being asked to believe that the Conservative government was clairvoyant in shutting down the Tehran embassy.

The prime minister, in an interview Thursday with the Sun News Network, said that when he looks at the tragic events unfolding at American missions in the region he feels very comfortable with his decision, citing past events in Iran and asserting that when the safety of Canadian diplomats cannot be guaranteed, tough decisions have to be made.

“Diplomats do not sign up for military service,’’ he said on Byline with Brian Lilley.

No, they don’t. But we didn’t just move our diplomats out of harm’s way. We closed the mission.

Canada has withdrawn from any role in moderating Iranian behaviour, our eyes and ears shut, our intelligence gone, our influence blunted.

The tragic deaths of four American diplomats in Libya and the storming of U.S. missions in Egypt and Yemen does not justify Baird’s decision to close the Tehran embassy.

Rather, it reminds us of the bravery of those who promote democracy, and their country’s interests, in hostile environments.

To a person, they seek to stay until they no longer can.

If there was a specific threat to Canadian personnel in Tehran, Baird and Harper — now that our diplomats are home safe and the Iranian mission here is empty — have an obligation to be more forthright with the nature of this threat.

And if this is the bold foreign policy statement that the Israeli government and the Conservatives claim, then why will Harper not swing by the United Nations General Assembly later this month while he is receiving a World Statesman of the Year award in New York and explain this move, perhaps calling on others to follow suit.

It’s six blocks from the dinner to the UN podium, where he would have a speaking slot the same day. But Harper isn’t interested.

The “statesman of the year’’ is instead snubbing the UN and sending Baird to speak in a secondary speaking slot the following week.

Those who argue that leaving Tehran is a matter of principle miss the point that we have eyes and ears on the ground, not on principle, but to promote our point of view and our sovereign interests.

Those who would argue that Tehran wasn’t listening to us anyway miss the point that we should still have Canadian eyes on the ground to bear witness.

Waving the white flag, taking our ball and going home, is hardly the high road.

“The myth is that we spend all our time at cocktail parties munching canapés,’’ says Paul Heinbecker, whose diplomatic career sent him to Canadian missions in five countries. “Increasingly, instead of canapés, the missions in some places mean flak jackets and bulletproof cars.’’

You won’t find a single diplomat, active or retired, who would support closing a mission except in the most threatening, dire circumstances.

Largely unheralded, they do not remain in dangerous environments because they are welcomed but because they subscribe to the well-worn dictum that you hold your friends close, but you hold your enemies closer.

We have kept embassies open during wars. We did not shut down during the darkest days of the Cold War.

We did not pack up and leave Iran even after its agents brutally assaulted and murdered Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi in 2003.

We maintained our presence in Syria longer than most, and Baird was praised for using our mission to deliver a message to Bashar Assad.

Sandra McCardell remained as our ambassador in Tripoli as long as she could before fleeing for her safety.

Harper is correct that our diplomats are not soldiers, but often they are the next closest thing.

He owes it to the foreign service, allies and Canadian voters to give us a fuller accounting of why we decided to leave Iran behind.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. tharper@thestar.ca

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