by Glenn Johnson,
CanWest News Service

OTTAWA - Iran has expelled Canada's ambassador to Tehran, Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier said Monday.

"Canada regrets the decision of the Government of Iran to order our ambassador to leave Tehran, which is entirely unjustifiable," he said.

There was no official notice of the move from Tehran or through Iran's official news agency IRNA about the reasons why John Mundy was ordered home, but Bernier told Reuters late Monday it was because Ottawa refused Iran's proposed envoys to Canada.

"Unfortunately we have as yet been unable to accept the candidates Tehran has submitted. We believe that the expulsion of our ambassador is an unfortunate and unjustified consequence of this situation," Bernier said.

A spokesman for Foreign Affairs said Iran has made a decision to "downgrade" the relationship from having an ambassador to a charge d'affaires.

"We will be seeking a fuller explanation from the Iranians in the coming days," a spokesman said, reading from department briefing notes.

Recently, the hot issues have been opposition to Iran's nuclear program, Iran's declaration that Israel should be wiped off the map and the continuing attempts by Canada to get answers about the death of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who died in Iranian custody in July 2003 after taking pictures of a student protest outside a prison.

Ottawa sent ambassador Gordon Venner to Iran in 2004 at that time to take the place of Philip MacKinnon, who was recalled over the Kazemi affair.

Iran currently does not have an ambassador in Canada. Seyed Mahdi Mohebi, Iran's charge d'affaires in Ottawa, represents the country at their embassy.

In Ottawa, Bernier said: "We stand behind our ambassador, who has performed his diplomatic duties with professionalism and dedication. We will continue to monitor the well-being of the other embassy staff in Tehran," Bernier said.

In a statement, Bernier said the Canadian Embassy in Iran will be headed by our charge d'affaires and that both countries will continue to maintain embassies and conduct normal operations.

Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier"We strive to keep our lines of communication open. Canada's approach to Iran will continue to be guided by our commitment to promote freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and by our regional and international interests. As always, Canada remains prepared to receive an Iranian ambassador provided a suitable candidate is presented."

There has been an ongoing squabble between the two countries for several years over human rights -_much of that centred in the torture and murder of Kazemi. Recently, however, the Canadian government expressed cautious support for Iran's pledge to launch a fresh investigation into the Montreal woman's death.

Iran's gesture was immediately condemned by Kazemi's family as having "no value."

Further pressing the tenuous relationship is the annual sponsorship by Canada of a motion of censure of Iran's human rights record. The 2007 censure highlights "confirmed instances" in Iran of torture, executions and stoning as a method of execution, among the abuses.

However, In November, Iran came within just two votes of winning enough backing at the United Nations to throw out the censure. And last September, Iran gave world diplomats at the UN a 70-page booklet on Canada's alleged human rights violations.

John McNee, Canada's ambassador to the UN, has summed up the political position: "We . . . look forward to the day when the government of Iran will simply acknowledge that it faces human rights issues."

Severely strained relations go back to 1980 when Canada, under ambassador Ken Taylor, helped get Americans out of the U.S. embassy before they could be taken hostage after the Iranian revolution.