Did intelligence fears prompt Canada to cut Iran ties?

Canada's decision to pull its diplomatic mission out of Iran, and send Iranian diplomats packing, caught many by surprise. While Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird provided a list of explanations for the abrupt departures, he may not have revealed the real reason: domestic terror threats.

Brian Stewart on the real reason behind the diplomatic rift

As a general principle, serious nations don’t embrace surprise and bafflement as elements of their foreign policy. Canada’s overnight liquidation of all relations with Iran on Friday would suggest an astonishing exception.

It’s not just the speed of that decision but the cluster of official explanations that set off so much head-scratching at home and abroad.

Predictably, the Harper government’s actions won immediate praise from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called it "bold leadership… a clear message to Iran and the entire world."

But elsewhere, the reaction was more a mystified "What’s up? Why now?"

Why did Canada seemingly break away from the general line of allied and friendly nations supporting tough, U.S.- led sanctions on Iran to elbow its way into a position of all-out diplomatic confrontation?

I believe there’s another story yet to emerge, which I’ll come to shortly.

Old complaints

The only relatively new complaint cited by foreign affairs minister John Baird involved Iran’s support for Syria’s oppressive Assad regime. The other grievances have been around for years, including threats against Israel, anti-Semitism in general, Iran’s nuclear program, its funding of terrorist organizations and notorious disregard for diplomatic rules.

A nasty package, for sure, and a nasty regime.

Yet does this not suggest Canada should remain firm alongside other nations in trying to keep as many diplomatic eyes and ears as possible functioning inside Iran?

I believe Harper acted on new intelligence. But the warnings were likely more about the Iranian embassy activities in Canada than they were about the safety of our personnel abroad.

That’s a point made by Canada’s former ambassador to Iran, John Mundy, who called the recent severing of diplomatic ties a "grave step" not easily repaired.

Canada no longer has any dialogue with Iran, Mundy told the Globe and Mail, and is unable to provide consular services to Canadians in distress or even gather analysis of what’s happening there.

"I really can’t see the rationale of this move," said Kenneth Taylor, the former ambassador famed for his role in helping U.S. officials escape a hostile Iran in the famous "Canadian Caper" in 1980. "It’s a very bold stroke to sever diplomatic relations and close the embassy within five days."

After all, Canada didn’t bail out of Moscow even during the most dangerous era of the cold war, and prided itself on its China mission while human rights abuses were monstrous in the 70’s and ‘80’s. The Harper government even maintained relations with Libya’s gruesome Gadhafi dictatorship right up to the point we decided to bomb it (alongside our NATO allies).

Inevitably, Canada’s abrupt move with Iran stoked fears that something very dangerous was afoot in the Middle East. Hasty diplomatic departures will do that.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, has praised Prime Minister Stephen Harper for his tough stance on Iran. (CP)

Theory about Israeli attack

One theory is that Ottawa has intelligence that an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites, with or without U.S. help, is imminent – dangerous news given our close ties with Israel. Many analysts, however, doubt such an attack is likely in this U.S. election year.

There were even suggestions in some foreign media that Canada bailed out of Tehran because Iranian security suspected our mission there had been collecting intelligence for the U.S., Britain and perhaps Israel — and that we were on the verge of expulsion, or even worse.

However, there seem to be no grounds to believe Canadian officials did more than collect and trade the normal open-source intel and street chatter all embassies pick up.

So we’re still puzzled. Perhaps because we’re looking in the wrong direction.

I believe Harper acted on new intelligence. But the warnings were likely more about the Iranian embassy activities in Canada than they were about the safety of our personnel abroad.

Indeed, the sheer number of reasons given for the diplomatic break may mask the true one: Iran’s aggressive use of diplomatic cover to prepare guerrilla cells to attack in the west should Iran itself be attacked.

Western intelligence has been ringing top-secret alarm bells for governments for over a year, warning of an extraordinary build-up of Iranian personnel in Europe, Africa and particularly in Latin America, many of them believed to be linked to Iran’s notorious Quds Force. That’s the elite arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, tasked with "extraterritorial operations."

Iran has powered up its diplomatic arm in the Americas, from a handful of embassies a dozen years ago to 10 today, along with 17 "cultural centres" in various countries. Most posts are staffed with far more officials than required for normal duties – 150 in Nicaragua alone.

Iran's 'extraterritorial operations'

In January, America’s top intelligence official, James Clapper, publicly stated that Iranian diplomats abroad were setting up sleeper cells designed to attack U.S. and allied interests around the world in the event of war.

Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, seen here during military exercises, are tasked with “extraterritorial operations” -- which means actions beyond Iran's borders. (Vahid Salemi/Associated Press)

Tehran has made no secret of the fact it has elaborate plans to wreak as much havoc as possible among nations supporting the U.S. and Israel should it come under attack.

In fact, just days before Canada hastily broke off relations, the head of the Iranian army’s joint chiefs of staff boasted to the Fars News Agency that if Iran was attacked, America and its allies should expect major terror attacks in their homeland. The deputy chief commander of the Revolutionary Guard echoed this, vowing "Any aggression against Iran will expand the war into the borders of the enemies. They know our power…"

Intelligence officials give credence to these threats because it makes grim strategic sense for Iran to hit back in this way, as its conventional forces are no match for Israel and the U.S. It also has ruthless allies to call on for joint operations, including Hezbollah, which is deemed a terrorist organization by Canada.

Canada’s intelligence service believes Canada’s increasing identification with Israel inevitably leave us a target for bombings, kidnappings or assassinations in an armed conflict. For years it has warned of the Iranian embassy’s efforts to threaten and blackmail some of the more than 100,000 Iranians living here into "cooperation." That’s why Canada has refused Iran’s repeated requests for consuls outside Ottawa.

Some type of new intelligence seems to have seriously shaken Harper’s government. Former CSIS assistant director Ray Boisvert told CBC such an unprecedented move "usually only happens in very serious conditions."

Boisvert insisted the Iranian embassy was "running some kind of threatening operation aimed at the Iranian community in Canada that absolutely poses a security threat in Canada."

Expect more of this story to come out in the next few weeks, when MPs return to Parliament, anxious to move beyond the current state of surprise and bafflement.


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.