Imagine if U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had delivered the speech that Foreign Minister John Baird gave to the Global Dialogue on Iran’s Future last week in Toronto. Stock markets would have tanked; diplomats would be booking one-way flights out of Tehran and Iran would be warming up its ballistic missiles.
To be sure, Mr. Baird said he hoped for a peaceful solution to the Iranian crisis but his message was clear – the Iranian people should overthrow Ayatollah Khamenei’s government and Canada will help them do it. This is a policy of regime change, and if our friends and allies adopt the Foreign Minister’s language then international negotiations with Iran will collapse.
The problem is not the topic of the Foreign Minister’s speech, which was supporting human rights in Iran. Supporting human rights is a good policy that plays to a Canadian strength. The problem is Mr. Baird’s premise that the correct approach towards Iran is to increase pressure on it until its government either surrenders or collapses.
The United States, Britain, France and Germany are following 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.
Imagine for a moment if they succeeded. Imagine if Iran’s current rulers agreed to suspend further fuel enrichment, implemented an Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency and began negotiating a trade and cooperation agreement with the West that included enhanced people-to-people contacts and a dialogue on human rights. If you listened to Foreign Minister Baird last week you would dismiss this as a pipe dream.
In fact the Iranian government, led by its current leader Ayatollah Khamenei, actually did this. 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. After 2005, he restarted Iran’s enrichment program and returned to an intransigent foreign policy.
A lot has happened in the past eight years, but we should not abandon negotiations with Iran. Indeed, a bipartisan group of retired, senior U.S. leaders has just called for Washington to strengthen its diplomatic approach. Their paper, entitled “Strategic Options for Iran: Balancing Pressure with Diplomacy”, calls for the United States to rebalance its sanctions policy by seeking direct talks with Iran. It is endorsed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Paul Volcker, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Ambassador Thomas Pickering and thirty other retired diplomats, generals and national security officials from the highest levels of the U.S. government.
Unlike the Canadian government – which is too committed to confrontation to change things – the United States and our other friends and allies have the wisdom to search for a political solution to the Iranian crisis.
The path of diplomacy is to deal with the government of your adversary and convince it to change or at least accommodate your key interests. Seeking the overthrow a foreign government is a different path.
John Mundy is a retired Canadian diplomat who served as Canada’s last Ambassador to Iran and was expelled from that country in 2007. He is currently Visiting Associate at the Centre for International Policy Studies, University of Ottawa.