The House

Eight years after, Canada's move to close Iranian embassy still controversial

This week on The House, we look at the Trudeau government's quest for answers after the downing of UIA Flight PS752. Plus, interviews with: a former bureaucrat who helped close Canada's embassy in Iran; a legal scholar on the dispute between the Wet’suwet’en people and Coastal GasLink; a Venezuelan opposition leader on the unrest in her country; and a debate on monarchy vs. republicanism.

Former Conservative government suspended diplomatic relations in 2012

Ryan Pourjam, 13, son of Mansour Pourjam, is embraced by family friend Mahmoud Rastgou after a Jan. 15 ceremony at Carleton University in Ottawa to honour Pourjam, who died in the crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 in Tehran. (Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Listen to the full episode48:56

The final act of foreign officer Barbara Martin's career was to oversee the closure of the Canadian embassy in Tehran in 2012 — a decision that continues to divide members of this country's Iranian community.

Martin was the Department of Foreign Affairs' director general for the Middle East and North Africa when then-minister John Baird announced Canada had suspended diplomatic relations with Iran and expelled Iranian diplomats from Canada.

The move came months after Iranian students stormed the British embassy in the Iranian capital in November 2011 — an event which sent a chill through the diplomatic community.

"Watching an event like that happen to a very friendly allied country, we were concerned about the security at our own embassy and whether we could see ourselves facing some sort of similar event," Martin said Thursday in an interview with The House.

A former foreign affairs director walks us through what was involved in the closure of Canada's embassy in Iran in 2012. 6:54

Before closing the embassy, she said, officials destroyed all records and computer equipment to ensure none of it fell into Iranian hands. One of the last tasks performed by embassy staff before they discreetly caught flights back to Canada was to take down the Canadian flag, she said.

Now, almost eight years later — and in the immediarte aftermath of last week's downing of UIA Flight PS752, which killed all 176 passengers and crew on board, including 57 Canadians — some Iranian Canadians would like to see the federal government restore diplomatic ties with Iran and reopen the embassy.

"As Justin Trudeau says, Canada needs to mediate and de-escalate the situation," Iranian Canadian Congress spokesperson Pouyan Tabasinejad told The House on Friday. "We've seen what happens when we don't have anything, we've seen what the politics of isolation and conflict give us. For eight years, we've seen that since Stephen Harper closed the embassy."

A panel of three Iranian-Canadians looks at what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government must do to get answers following the downing of UIA Flight PS752. 11:48

But critics of the Iranian government such as lawyer and human rights activist Kaveh Shahrooz say re-opening the embassy would send Tehran the wrong message.

"I don't see this argument for diplomatic relations, which really should be thought of as a reward for good behaviour. I don't understand why this argument keeps coming up when the Iranian regime has just killed so many of our civilians,  lied about it and is trying to obfuscate and hide the truth," he told The House on Friday.

Having an embassy in Iran might have helped the federal government respond to the airline disaster, but it's not critical, Martin said.

"We would have been on the ground faster. We would have been able to get in to meet with officials within the (Iranian) Ministry of Foreign Affairs to negotiate consideration for speedy issuance of visas. We would have been able to get information more quickly from both Iranians and our allies," said Martin, now an adjunct professor at the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University and a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

"That said, you can overcome those limitations and I think the government has been very effective in doing so."