According to Canadian government behaviour, the lack of democracy and repression of women is bad in Iran, but okay in Saudi Arabia. Why? None of the opposition parties are even asking the question.
The new deputy leader of the Conservatives wants to overthrow the government of Iran. In response to Power & Politics host Vassy Kapelos asking whether she supported regime change in Iran, Melissa Lantsman said yes and “if you can’t be unequivocal about a brutal religious dictatorship who kills their own people, then I’m not sure what we’re all discussing here.”
Lantsman expressed the view of a significant segment of Canada’s political establishment. The hypocrisy of this position is obvious when you consider the history of Canada’s relations with Iran and other governments in the region.
Canada doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Tehran and lists that country as a “state sponsor of terror”. It has a series of sanctions on Iran and is planning to add more.
But Iran’s neighbour Saudi Arabia is far more repressive, particularly towards women. In recent years the Saudi monarchy has also been responsible for significant violence and suffering in Yemen. Still, Canada has diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and that country has been the second biggest recipient of Canadian weapons sales.
Ottawa has friendly ties with the UAE and other repressive monarchies in the region as well.
In a sign of the Canadian establishment’s embrace of hereditary rule in the region, CBC’s Power and Politics interviewed Reza Pahlavi about recent protests in Iran. Pahlavi is the son and “crown prince” of Iran’s final Shah who ruled prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Canada did significant business with Iran throughout the Shah’s reign and Canadian politicians visited regularly. Ontario Premier William Davis, for instance, went to meet the Shah in September 1978. During the 1970s the Canadian government’s Defence Programs Bureau had a representative in Tehran and Canada sold about a quarter billion dollars in today’s money worth of arms to Iran during the decade. This was during a time when Amnesty International reported “no country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran.” The Shah’s brutal SAVAK intelligence forces killed tens of thousands, which prompted little condemnation from Ottawa.
In 1978 Canadian exports to Iran reached $2.4 billion (in today’s purchasing power). At the time of the revolution Export Development Canada (EDC) had $400 million in outstanding export insurance and Canadian banks held billions of dollars in loans to Iran’s Shah.
Not long after the Shah’s departure, Canada closed its embassy in Tehran, which wouldn’t reopen for eight years. During this period Ottawa effectively backed Iraq in its war with Iran.
As Lantsman should know, but probably doesn’t care, Canada backed the regime change that returned the Shah to power in 1953 when the US and Britain overthrew Iran’s first popularly elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. After the coup the country was handed over to a brutal regime that ruled for 26 years.
Canada even played a small part in overthrowing Iranian democracy. In the lead-up to the coup the British embassy in Tehran represented Canada’s diplomatic relations in the country and the files at External Affairs on Iran largely consist of US and British reports. Thirteen months before the coup Canada’s Ambassador in Washington cabled Ottawa: “The situation in Iran could hardly look worse than it does at present. Mossadegh has been returned to power with increased influence and prestige and will almost certainly prove even more unreasonable and intractable than in the past, so that a settlement of the oil dispute will be harder than ever to arrange.”
Mossadegh wanted Iran to benefit from its huge oil reserves. But the British had different plans. In the face of Anglo-Iranian intransigence, Mossadegh defied the English, supporting the nationalization of the country’s oil industry. It was a historic move that made Iran the first former colony to reclaim its oil.
Canada’s external affairs minister was not happy with the Iranians move. In May 1951 Lester Pearson told the House of Commons the “problem can be settled” only if the Iranians keep in mind the “legitimate interests of other people who have ministered to the well-being of Iran in administering the oil industry of that country which they have been instrumental in developing.” Later that year Pearson complained about the Iranians’ “emotional” response to the English. He added: “In their anxiety to gain full control of their affairs by the elimination of foreign influence, they are exposing themselves to the menace of communist penetration and absorption — absorption into the Soviet sphere.”
In response to the nationalization, the British organized an embargo of Iranian oil, which Ottawa followed. The embargo weakened Mossadegh’s government, enabling the CIA’s subsequent drive to topple the nationalist prime minister. After a March 11, 1953, National Security Council Meeting, the head of the CIA, Allan Dulles, gave the agency’s Tehran bureau a million US dollars ($8 million today) to be used, “in any way that would bring about the fall of Mossadegh.” All the Shah’s Men explains: “Through a variety of means, covert agents would manipulate public opinion and turn as many Iranians as possible against Mossadegh. This effort, for which $150,000 was budgeted, would ‘create, extend and enhance public hostility and distrust and fear of Mossadegh and his government’. It would portray Mossadegh as corrupt, pro-communist, hostile to Islam, and bent on destroying the morale and readiness of the armed forces. While Iranian agents spread these lies, thugs would be paid to launch staged attacks on religious leaders and make it appear that they were ordered by Mossadegh or his supporters.”
Pearson did not protest the overthrow of Iran’s first elected prime minister. Privately, External Affairs celebrated. Three days after Mossadegh was ousted, a cable from the ambassador in Washington explained: “Perhaps the most disturbing and unpredictable factor [in Iran] was the continued strength of the Tudeh party.” Iran’s Communist Party, Tudeh, pushed for the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and its support for Mossadegh was used to justify the coup. Reflecting British-American demonization/criminalization efforts, External Affairs sent the RCMP a copy of a UK government report titled the “Tudeh Party of Persia”.
When some Canadians asked External Affairs “to prevent the imprisonment or execution of premier Mossadegh of Iran” they were told nothing could be done. Four months after the coup, Canada’s ambassador in Washington cabled Ottawa about “encouraging reports from their [US] embassy in Tehran on the growing strength of the present [coup] government.” Canada followed the lead of the UK and US in doing business with the brutal dictatorship of Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi. Ottawa began diplomatic relations with Iran in 1955.
The history suggests Canada has never cared about democracy or human rights in Iran. Canadian support for, or opposition to, the government in Tehran has been motivated by other considerations. I’ll leave it to the reader to come to their own conclusion about what it is today.