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Canada still isolates Iran, despite Iraq crisis and British, U.S. moves

OTTAWA - The Harper government's unyielding isolation of Iran persisted Tuesday, even as the United States and Britain explored how to enlist Tehran's help in defusing the escalating crisis in Iraq.

Britain announced it would re-open its embassy in Tehran while the U.S. said it was looking at other possible areas of co-operation in an effort to stop the violent offensive by militants across Iraq.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the "circumstances are right" for his country to re-open its embassy, which was closed in 2011 after it was attacked and ransacked.

Canada followed suit in 2012, shuttering its embassy in the Iranian capital and expelling the country's diplomats.

A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Canada's relations with Tehran will remain severed until Iran can prove it is trustworthy.

"We have a made-in-Canada foreign policy, and while we respect the decisions of our friends and allies, our position on Iran remains clear and one rooted in principle," Baird's spokesman Adam Hodge said in an email.

"While we want to believe the regime is genuinely committed to positive change, we believe that actions speak louder than words.

"Until Canada is given real reasons to trust the words of the regime, Canadian sanctions will remain in full force, and relations with Iran will remain suspended."

Hodge said Iran has sown mayhem in the region for decades by supporting terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah.

"Iran continues to destabilize the region in countries like Syria and Iraq," he said. "We believe co-operation with Iran deserves pause and reflection on their true intentions."

Baird cited the attack on the British embassy as one of the reasons behind the government's decision to shut down its mission in the fall of 2012.

The Harper government maintains that the safety of its diplomats is paramount.

However, Hague told the British parliament that he believed his country's diplomats would be able to carry out their duties unfettered.

And he said he spoke to his Iranian counterpart on the weekend about doing more to improve relations.

The embassy opening is part of a gradual rapprochement between Britain and Iran following the election of a new moderate Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, last August.

British Prime Minister David Cameron telephoned Rouhani last fall, the first time the leaders of the two countries had spoken in more than a decade.

The militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has taken control of several cities in Syria and Iraq. That has now given Iran a shared interest with the West: finding a way to bring stability to its Iraqi neighbour.

The Obama administration is sending about 300 military personnel in and around Iraq to help secure its assets, and is also considering airstrikes.

Fen Hampson, the director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said Canada should consider "double-hatting" with the British by sending Canadian diplomats to join them in their re-opened embassy.

Canada had a similar arrangement with Britain in Iraq, where it stationed a lone Canadian diplomat in its embassy in Baghdad. That person was withdrawn this past weekend over concerns about security.

"There are arguments for greater engagement in light of the changing situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria," Hampson said.

But he also warned that it might be too soon for Canada to re-establish relations with Iran.

"Having eyes and ears on the ground in Iran may be useful," he said.

"But the risk we run is that if we resume diplomatic ties and they reopen their embassy here, they may return to spying on Iranian-Canadians and other kinds of clandestine activities that were one of the reasons for suspending diplomatic ties in the first place."

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