Attack on British embassy in Iran put Canadians on alert

As protesters set fire to the U.K. embassy in Tehran in 2011, Canadian diplomats considered leaving Iran and debated what they could do for their British counterparts — including sheltering someone from the household of the U.K. ambassador.

2011 demonstration saw protesters storm the U.K. embassy and had Canadians considering pulling out

As protesters set fire to the UK embassy in Tehran on Nov. 29, 2011, Canadian diplomats considered leaving Iran and debated what they could do for their British counterparts — including sheltering someone from the household of the U.K. ambassador. (Reuters)

As protesters set fire to the U.K. embassy in Tehran in 2011, Canadian diplomats considered leaving Iran and debated what they could do for their British counterparts — including sheltering someone from the household of the U.K. ambassador.

Records released under the federal access-to-information law show the Canadians double-checked their evacuation plans. But they reassured concerned officials back in Ottawa they were safe to stay on the ground despite the unfolding drama.

On Nov. 29, 2011, a group of Iranians stormed two British diplomatic sites in Tehran, including one that housed British staff. They smashed windows, looted and set fire to a vehicle. Britain shut down its embassy as a result, saying Iranian officials failed to live up to their international obligations to protect it.

"Yesterday was a very bad day," Dennis Horak, the Canadian head of mission, wrote in an emailed briefing to a number of Canadian officials on Nov. 30, 2011.

"We stand ready to provide whatever assistance is necessary and doable while the U.K. draws down (in keeping with the traditions established by one of my distant predecessors, we have agreed to offer refuge at the OR to one member of the amb's [ambassador's] household)," Horak wrote, referring to the Canadians' official residence.

The reference to a distant predecessor likely means Ken Taylor, who was Canadian ambassador to Iran in 1979 when the U.S. embassy was stormed and dozens of American officials taken hostage. Taylor and his deputy sheltered six fleeing U.S. diplomats for three months in two official Canadian residences.

Evacuation discussed

The Canadians watched news of the attack closely, sifting through reports by media linked to the regime and picking up intelligence at social gatherings.

"Lots of confusion and rumours going around," Horak wrote in an email on Nov. 29.

Records obtained by CBC News suggest Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird kept a close eye on the security situation in Tehran after the British embassy was attacked. (Markku Ulander/Associated Press)
"We have just sent a message to all [Canadian officials in Tehran] to ensure that their communications systems are all on, ready and charged. But again, we don't feel under any risk."

In an email an hour later, Horak told officials in Ottawa, "I don't see any reason why we shouldn't operate business as usual."

At least four lines after that are redacted, as are large swaths of the records, which cite international relations and advice to a cabinet minister as reasons for the redactions.

The records suggest Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and his staff kept a close eye on the situation.

Canada's deputy director for the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Iraq and the Maghreb said in an email to embassy officials that there were discussions in Ottawa about pulling the officials out of the country.

No 'direct threat'

"Following consultations with [the deputy foreign minister] and deputies it was agreed with [Baird's office] that you should not be withdrawn from Tehran at this time. Mission security, the security of staff, and ongoing mission operations remain our paramount concern. Having you in situ greatly enhances our capacity to deal with any and all contingencies," Stephen Bennett wrote.

In a report the week after the Nov. 29 attack, Horak points to an upcoming visit by a Canadian security expert.

"We welcome the planned visit of the departmental security officer [international security and intelligence] in January for an on-site assessment," Horak wrote in the report, which went to other heads of missions in the region, the Privy Council Office, which assists the prime minister, and the Department of National Defence.

The records released don't cover the time for which the visit was planned. It's not clear whether the security assessment took place.

Canada eventually closed its embassy on Sept. 7, 2012, less than a year after the attack on the U.K. embassy. Britain reopened its embassy last month.

Baird cited security risks and referred to the lack of assistance from Iranian officials in protecting the British embassy when explaining the closure.

Evacuation plan

Horak noted the violence against the Brits shouldn't deter Canada from "taking whatever steps" it felt necessary to respond to the attack.

"We are also reviewing our procedures and plans to reduce our own vulnerability in the unlikely event that things go from bad to worse. I met with all staff this morning to reassure them about our situation and our ability to manage any challenges that might arise (most did not seem overly concerned)," he wrote.

An Iranian hard-line protester runs inside the British embassy in Tehran as a diplomatic vehicle is set on fire by demonstrators who stormed it in November 2011. (Vahid Salemi/Associated Press)

By that time, officials had already visited the British embassy to assess the site and offer help.

"We see no evidence of a direct threat to the Canadian embassy or mission personnel at this time, although we will be tracking developments closely. All-staff meeting, briefed locals and [Canadian officials in Tehran], targeted U.K. embassy specifically," the mission security officer wrote in a report.

The same day, another official in Tehran sent the draft mission emergency plan, including evacuation routes, to headquarters. The section assessing potential risks from intentional acts is blacked out.

The plan includes a list of property occupied by the Canadians, as well as a list of vehicles and their seating capacity.

'Considered and principled position'

At the same time, embassy officials said they weren't concerned.

Horak argued it wasn't new sanctions, imposed concurrently by a number of western countries, that prompted the violent reaction but an uneasy history between the British and Iran.

"No one I have spoken to, Iranians or other like-minded and not so like-minded, believes that we will see a repeat of what happened at the U.K. embassy anywhere else," he wrote.

"Canada has staked out a considered and principled position on Iran," he wrote, followed by a line and a half of redacted words. "It is to our credit that we have done so and our reputation on that front is noticed by our allies here who often consult us on what we are doing and saying, and by the Iranians."

Another Canadian official, however, remained concerned, given violent demonstrations in the region.

"There is an overall desire here to be prudent in assessing security implications for the post and staff in the aftermath of this event, which was particularly targeted against a diplomatic mission. The situation was subject of a briefing with [Baird's office] by [international security and intelligence], myself and others, and underscores their concern about the safety of our people," Barbara Martin wrote on Dec. 1.

Martin said they would review the decision not to recall anyone.


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