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Another Embassy Closed in Iran: What Does It Mean for Iranians?

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During my recent visit to Iran, I had heard through the grapevine about the possibility of the Canadian embassy shutting down, but figured it was just speculation. When the rumor had turned into fact, it baffled me.

After the British embassy in Tehran shut down operations last November, it is now the Canadians' turn to leave. What prompted the British to take similar action in 2011 was a group of student protesters -- supposedly basij -- which had stormed the embassy, as an attempt to express anger due to the most recent financial sanctions on Iran. The Iranian Foreign Ministry then issued a statement expressing "regret for certain unacceptable behavior by a small number of protesters in spite of efforts by the police... the relevant authorities have been asked to take the necessary measures and look into this issue immediately."

The relations between Iran and the U.K. have always been shaky. As noted by Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian Parliament, "This anger was the outpouring of several decades of exploitative actions by England in Iran. Part of it dates back to the early periods of the Constitutional Revolution and part of it was because of their role in strengthening the Pahlavi dynasty. After the revolution which caused England to lose its influence, they continued their animosity with the Iranian nation."

Iran does have a history of invading embassies, the most infamous example being the 1979 American Embassy takeover when 52 hostages were held for 444 days, best known as the 'Iran Hostage Crisis'.

Regardless of whether the Iranian regime had something to do with the British embassy raid or not, it should not have had to shut down the embassy in its entirety. This never stopped embassies in other Middle East countries from closing. Take Egypt, for example, in the case of the storming of the Israeli embassy last September. Although the ambassador left the country, both countries normalized relations shortly after (This was not the first time it happened, either).

In the case of the Canadian embassy, Foreign Minister John Baird cited that:

... 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.

Baird also added that he worried about the safety of its embassy workers in Iran due to what happened with the UK. If the safety of the Canadian diplomats was indeed an issue, why did it take them almost a year to make this decision? Why not close the embassy in conjunction with the British one?

Similarly, if Syria were a significant issue to the Canadian government, it would have made sense for the Canadians to do precisely the same in Syria. However, this is not the case as, according to the official Canadian government website: "The Embassy of Canada in Damascus has suspended operations until further notice."

The closing of two major embassies in Tehran is a significant problem for many Iranians. Many Iranians study, do business and travel to visiti families in the UK and Canada. In 2009, Iran led in applications of students from abroad at the University of Alberta with 618 Master's and PhD applicants, which was an increase by 60 percent since the previous year. What will happen to all the university students who have applied to study or are currently studying in Canada?

Without these embassies intact, this shuts down the mobilization of the Iranian people. Taraneh, a mother of two, has been unable to visit her children and grandchildren in the UK as of last year because of the embassy shutdown. Many Iranians with ties to the UK share variations of Taraneh's story, and soon those who wish to visit Canada will join them.

A similar story occurred to Samira, an Iranian married to a British national, when she attempted to attend the wedding of her brother-in-law in the UK. Her situation was further complicated, causing her to go to an embassy abroad which became more costly and time consuming for her to find a means to attend the wedding. Samira was not certain about being able to attend the ceremony until days before the wedding.

Canada had little economic and political ties with Iran, due to its Controlled Engagement Policy. This puts restriction on four areas: "the human rights situation in Iran; Iran's nuclear program and disregard for related international obligations; the case of Mrs. Zahra Kazemi who was killed in an Iranian prison by regime officials in 2003; and Iran's role in the region." This statement leads me to believe that the shutdown of the Canadian embassy has little to do with the concern for human rights and Iran not abiding by sanctions due to its controversial nuclear program -- which the Canadian government cannot engage in talks about -- but rather an attempt to isolate the Iranian people and put pressure on their government.

The Iranian embassy in Ottowa has also been forced to shut down by the Canadian government, allowing five days for the embassy staff to leave.