Canada–Iran relations

Iran Canada Stephen Harper

Canada–Iran relations
Map indicating locations of Canada and Iran



Canada and Iran have had no formal diplomatic relations since 2012. Canadian consular and passport services are provided through other Canadian diplomatic missions in other countries in the Middle East while Iran maintains an interests section at the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington, D.C. The government headed by PM Justin Trudeau which took office in 2015, has reportedly been reviewing relations with Iran and, like most countries, lifted most of its economic sanctions following the Iran nuclear agreement in July 2015.


Americans display their gratitude for Canadian efforts during the Canadian Caper, a rescue mission of American diplomats during the November 1979–January 1981 Iran hostage crisis.

Prior to 1955, Canadian Consular and Commercial Affairs in Iran were handled by the British Embassy. Foreign relations and diplomatic ties between Canada and Iran began with the founding of an Iranian mission in Ottawa in 1956, and a Canadian mission in Tehran in 1959. The Canadian mission was granted embassy status in 1961.[1]

The most significant event took place during the Iranian revolution of 1979, when the Canadian embassy hid six American diplomats after the violent takeover of the U.S. embassy. The Canadian government played a key role in arranging the departure of these diplomats undetected by officials. In January 1980, the Americans were secretly smuggled out of Iran using Canadian passports. In parallel, all Canadian diplomats left to avoid retaliation from the Iranian regime.

Rupture of relations under the Khomeini regime

Formal relations between the two nations continued uninterrupted from 1955 until 1980. When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Iranian Revolution drove the Shah from the country in 1979, the Canadian Embassy scrambled to evacuate the 850 Canadian workers in Iran while the embassy staff remained.[2] Six American diplomats took refuge in the Canadian embassy after Iranian student protesters stormed the U.S. embassy, and the Canadian government, in coordination with the Central Intelligence Agency, safely evacuated them from the country using Canadian passports with forged Iranian visas.[3] This covert rescue became known as the "Canadian Caper", and while it improved Canada's relations with the United States, Canada–Iran relations became more volatile.[4][5] The embassy staff were quickly evacuated for fear of retribution against Canadians, and the embassy was closed in 1980.[6]

Resumption of diplomatic relations under Khamenei

From 1980 to 1988, Canada and Iran did not have normal diplomatic ties, though relations were not formally severed. The Canadian government was reluctant to reopen an embassy, both because of the history, and given the Iranian government's history of kidnapping and torturing diplomats.[7] In 1988, the two governments agreed to resume diplomatic relations at a low level, and the Canadian embassy in Tehran was re-opened.

Due to rocky relations after the Iranian Revolution, Iran did not establish an embassy in Canada until 1991. Its staff, which had been living in a building on Roosevelt Avenue in Ottawa's west end, moved into 245 Metcalfe Street in the Centretown neighbourhood of Ottawa, and the mission was upgraded to embassy status.[8] In Tehran, the Canadian Embassy had been located at 57 Shahid Sarafaz Street and Ostad Motahari Avenue. The mission was staffed by a chargé rather than a full ambassador.

The nations formally exchanged ambassadors in 1996. Canadian concerns over human rights abuses in Iran, its record on nuclear non-proliferation, Holocaust denial and threats to destroy Israel, and its active opposition to the Middle East peace process led to a policy of "controlled engagement" by Canadian diplomats. Bilateral ties were restricted, such as preventing direct air links between the two countries or the opening of Iranian consulates and cultural centres in Canada (other than the embassy in Ottawa).[9]

Canada has also continued to express its concern about human rights in Iran, and in particular, issues such as the independence of the judiciary, arbitrary detention, freedom of expression, treatment of women and treatment of persons belonging to religious and ethnic minorities, including Iran's small remaining Jewish community, and members of the Bahá'í Faith.[10][11][12]

2003: Zahra Kazemi

Relations between Canada and Iran drastically deteriorated in June 2003 when Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian freelance photographer from Montreal, was arrested while taking pictures outside a prison in Tehran during a student protest. Three weeks later, she was killed while in custody.[13]

Iranian authorities insisted that her death was accidental, claiming that she died of a stroke while being interrogated. However, Shahram Azam, a former military staff physician, stated that he examined Kazemi's body and observed obvious signs of torture, including a skull fracture, broken nose, signs of rape and severe abdominal bruising. This information was revealed within Azam's case for seeking asylum in Canada in 2004[13]

Kazemi's death in Iranian custody attracted widespread international attention.[14] Because of her joint citizenship and the circumstances of her death, the tragedy generated considerable protest. In November 2003, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression honoured Kazemi with the Tara Singh Hayer Memorial Award in recognition of her courage in defending the right to free expression.[15]

Canada drafted a United Nations resolution to condemn human rights abuses in Iran, expressing concern for Iran's use of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, particularly the practice of amputation and flogging. In response and to shift the focus, Gholamhossein Elham, the Iranian judiciary spokesman, responded by claiming, "The Canadian government has the worst, most backward and racist judiciary system." Iran further accused a Canadian police officer of gunning down 18-year-old Iranian Kayvan Tabesh on July 14 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The police officer claimed self-defence after the teenager allegedly charged at him with a machete. Iran also presented a 70-page report before the adoption of the resolution, detailing alleged human rights abuses in Canada in an attempt to discredit the main backer of the resolution.

In another incident, a prominent Canadian-Iranian blogger, Hossein Derakhshan, was detained by police in Tehran in 2008 over remarks he made about the Shiite faith, according to the Iranian Judiciary.[16]

2005: "Controlled engagement" and United Nations Resolution 1737

On May 17, 2005, Canada tightened its controlled engagement policy by limiting talks with Iran to four subjects:

  1. Human rights situation in Iran;
  2. Iran's nuclear programme and its compliance with non-proliferation obligations;
  3. The case of Zahra Kazemi;
  4. Iran's role in the region.[17]

In October 2005, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a speech at a conference entitled "The World Without Zionism". During the speech he made comments that were widely interpreted as anti-semitic by the Jewish community and the Western world in general. Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin summoned the Iranian ambassador in Canada and gave a formal reprimand.[18]

On December 26, 2006, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1737, demanding that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program or face economic sanctions. On February 22, the Governor-in-Council made new regulations under the United Nations Act: Regulations Implementing the United Nations Resolution on Iran. Together with existing relevant provisions of the Canada Shipping Act, the Export and Import Permits Act, and the Nuclear Safety and Control Act, these provisions allowed Canada to bring economic sanctions against Iran as requested in resolution 1737. The sanctions include a ban on any trade that could contribute to Iran's activities in enrichment, reprocessing heavy water, or the development of nuclear weapons delivery systems. The regulations also deal with freezing assets and notification of travel by Iranian officials in Canada.

Manouchehr Mottaki in April 2010

In June, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the Islamic Republic News Agency that Canada was "hiding some spies at their embassy in Tehran and allowing them to escape". Mottaki told the IRNA that he warned his Canadian counterpart at the UN General Assembly in 2005 that "Canada should be aware of its limits and realize what country it was dealing with." On November 30, 2006, the conservative-dominated parliament in Iran accused the Canadian embassy of being a "den of spies" for the United States and launched a query to investigate. Iranian MPs met with the Iranian Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejeie to discuss the charges.[19]

In 2007, moves to warm relations between the two countries occurred with the Supreme Court in Iran calling for another review of the death of Zahra Kazemi, and an attempt to again exchange ambassadors. Canada rejected two Iranian candidates after Canadian intelligence suggested they may have been involved with the radical student uprising that stormed the U.S. embassy in 1979. Iran then refused to review the credentials of the Canadian candidate John Mundy, an act which Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier claimed was "retaliation for Ottawa's rejection of Iran's top choices". Mundy was later expelled from Tehran.[20]

2010: Economic sanctions

In 2010, amendments to the Special Economic Measures Act of 2004 restricted financial transactions and economic activities between Canada and Iran that are considered beneficial to the Iranian government.[21] In response to the Act, Toronto-Dominion Bank closed a number of accounts of Iranian-Canadian customers to comply with the sanctions.[22]

Having already imposed a series of trade sanctions in 2012, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird imposed additional bans and froze all remaining trade with Iran. This came at a time when bilateral trade was worth around C$135 million ($130 million USD). This was enacted in protest the Tehran's nuclear ambitions and human rights record. Baird was quoted as saying, "The absence of progress ... leads Canada to ban effectively immediately all imports and exports from Iran". Statistics Canada's data for 2012 reveals exports to Iran were worth around C$95 million, mostly consisting of cereals, oil seeds, and fruit, as well as chemical products, and machinery. Iranian exports totaled C$40 million, with fruits, nuts, and textiles being most prevalent.[23] Baird delivered his message to an approving audience in Washington at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Baird won an extended standing ovation for reiterating the government's view that Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon is the most dangerous threat to global security.[24]

While Baird's premise is to increase pressure on it until its government either surrenders or collapses, the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany have taken a different approach. They are committed to negotiation with Iran's current government, and are willing to accommodate legitimate Iranian interests. Their aim is to settle the nuclear issue, reintegrate Iran into the international economy, and support Iranian reform. Their approach is fully consistent with support for Iranian human rights. In 2003, after years of patient negotiation between Iran and the European Union, Iran agreed to all of this and also made a direct overture to the United States. The agreement lasted until 2005, when Ayatollah Khamenei became convinced that Europe was negotiating in bad faith and only acting for the United States, who remained unambiguously hostile.[25]

2012: Baird severs diplomatic ties

On September 7, 2012 (during APEC Russia 2012 summit), Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird announced that Canada was breaking diplomatic relations with Iran.[26] Canada severed diplomatic ties with Iran and closed its embassy in Tehran, citing Iran's material support to the Assad regime during the Syrian Civil War, non-compliance with United Nations resolutions regarding its nuclear program, continuing threats to Israel, and fears for the safety of Canadian diplomats following attacks on the British embassy in Iran in violation of the Vienna Convention.[27] In addition, Canada formally listed the Iranian regime as a state sponsor of terrorism under the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act.[28] The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade advised all Canadians against travelling to Iran.[29] Consular services would be assured by the Embassy of Canada in Ankara, Turkey and the department's Emergency Watch and Response Centre.[27] Ten Canadian diplomats had already left Iran when Canada announced the closure of its embassy.[30] This move was another step by Canada to isolate Iran in addition to economic sanctions.[31]

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was quoted as saying that the Iranian government is "unambiguously, a clear and present danger," and that "the appeal of our conscience requires us to speak out against what the Iranian regime stands for."[32] Canada's foreign affairs ministry offered the following explanation:

The Iranian regime is providing increasing military assistance to the Assad regime; it refuses to comply with UN resolutions pertaining to its nuclear program; it routinely threatens the existence of Israel and engages in racist anti-Semitic rhetoric and incitement to genocide; it is among the world's worst violators of human rights; and it shelters and materially supports terrorist groups, requiring the Government of Canada to formally list Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism under the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act.[33][34]

After Canada's announcement of closure, a note written in Persian was posted on the door of Iran's embassy in Ottawa that noted: "Because of the hostile decision by the government of Canada, the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Ottawa is closed and has no choice but to stop providing any consular services for its dear citizens."[35]


According to a 2012 BBC World Service poll, only 9% of Canadians view Iran's influence positively, with 81% expressing a negative view.[36] In the Calgary Herald, Baird clarified that he 'views the government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today.'",[37] The Canadian embassy in Tehran remains closed, and Iranian diplomats were declared personae non gratae, ordering them to leave Canada within five days.[33][38] James George, who served as Canada's ambassador to Iran between 1972 and 1977, criticized Baird, saying "It's stupid to close an embassy in these circumstances."[26]

Ramin Mehmanparast, spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs described this development as "the hostile" action of the "racist government in Canada", which is following "the pursuit of Zionist and British dictated policies." [39] In addition, the ministry described the Canadian decision as "an abuse of international law" and alleged that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government is known for "extremist and failed policies." The ministry also said that Canada is a "threat to international security and stability."[40] A senior Iranian lawmaker, Chairman of the Majlis (parliament) Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy Alaeddin Boroujerdi, alleged that "Canada is under the control of Britain, the 'governor' appointed by the British queen," and that Canada was "blindly" following Britain.[41]

On September 26, 2012, Iranian Foreign Ministry advised all Iranian citizens against travelling to Canada due to increasing Islamophobia and Iranophobia. Furthermore, the ministry said that they have been cases of arrests and expulsions of Iranian expatriates under various pretexts and Iranians are deprived of their basic rights to continue with their ordinary activities, including the right to access their banking accounts and do ordinary transactions and that Iranians are murdered but not investigated in any significant way by Canadian police.[42][43]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Canada for the decision, calling it a "moral, courageous step" which sends a message to the international community that it can not allow "the dark regime in Iran to get nuclear weapons." Netanyahu called on other members of the international community to follow Canada's lead and "set moral and practical red lines" to Iran.[44]

As of June 13, 2019, Canadian interests in Iran are represented by the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.[45] Originally, Italy represented Canada's interests until 2019.[46][47] On October 22, 2013, Oman agreed to serve Iranian interests in Canada at its embassy in Ottawa after providing services (July 2012 – October 2013) for the UK.[48][49]

2015: Justin Trudeau era

Justin Trudeau said within the first month of the October 2015 election which brought him to power that he had plans to restore relations between the two nations, in the wake of the Iranian nuclear deal, which the outgoing Harper government had strongly opposed.[50]


Following the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement on 16 January 2016 by Iran and P5+1, the Canadian trade minister Chrystia Freeland announced on 5 February 2016 that they will lift economic sanctions against Iran, which will allow Canadian companies to do business with Iran but will maintain restrictions on exports relating to nuclear goods and technologies and anything that could help Iran in developing ballistic missiles. This also includes a list of individuals and companies that have associations with the Iranian government. In 2013 alone, the Canadian government (under Stephen Harper) has imposed a complete trade embargo on Iran and economic sanctions and travel restrictions against 78 individuals and 508 companies and organizations.[51]

Canadian foreign minister Stéphane Dion has also supported the lifting of Canadian economic sanctions but voiced concerns about Iran's role in the Middle East, its standoff with Israel, its ballistic missile program and its worsening human rights record. In his March 2016 speech at the University of Ottawa, Dion said that breaking off diplomatic ties with Iran "had no positive consequences for anyone"—not for Canadians, not for Iranians, not for Israelis and not for global security. He has also made calls to start re-engaging with Iran in order "to play a useful role in that region of the world."[52][53]

See also


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  2. ^ Robert Wright (June 6, 2010). Our Man in Tehran: Ken Taylor, the CIA and the Iran Hostage Crisis. HarperCollins Canada. p. 181. ISBN 978-1-55468-878-4.
  3. ^ Chantal Allan (November 15, 2009). Bomb Canada: And Other Unkind Remarks in the American Media. Athabasca University Press. p. 68. ISBN 978-1-897425-49-7.
  4. ^ "Canadian Caper helps Americans escape Tehran". CBC Archives. Retrieved July 30, 2006.
  5. ^ Mark Kearney; Randy Ray (September 30, 2006). Whatever Happened To...?: Catching Up with Canadian Icons. Dundurn. p. 45. ISBN 978-1-55002-654-2.
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  8. ^ Preston G. Smith (2003). Encyclopedia of World Terrorism. M E SHARPE INC. p. 281. ISBN 978-1-56324-807-8.
  9. ^ Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The United States Record, 2003-2004. Government Printing Office. July 2, 2004. pp. 174–177. ISBN 978-0-16-072270-7.
  10. ^ Michael Byers (June 1, 2008). Intent For A Nation: What is Canada For: A Relentlessly Optimistic Manifesto for Canada's Role in the World. Douglas & McIntyre. p. 95. ISBN 978-1-55365-381-3.
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  49. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on October 30, 2013. Retrieved October 30, 2013.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
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