In a villa in Baghdad’s Green Zone, John Baird went to see an Iraqi minister about a problem. This wasn’t the grand stuff of sweeping global affairs. He’d stopped on a rushed trip in flak jackets and armoured cars for a last meeting about a business deal gone sour.
The Foreign Affairs Minister now has an expansive role as the Harper government’s point man on all corners of international affairs, and travels touting a principles-and-interests policy. His visit to Baghdad two weeks ago made him the first Canadian foreign minister to visit in 37 years, asserting it was time to re-engage Iraq on regional stability, sectarian divisions and potentially lucrative trade. But inside the salon of Iraqi Transport Minister Hadi Al-Amiri’s home, for a journalist tucked in the back, there was a peek into the other, nitty-gritty aspects of the role Mr. Baird now holds: He’d come to browbeat a minister on an order for Canadian planes. It’s a sticky task that doesn’t fit easily with geopolitics and boosting new trade.
“Our relationship is perfect, except for one thing. And everyone tells me you’re the man to speak to,” he told Mr. Al-Amiri. Over the next half hour, though, a frustrated Mr. Baird was to see how imperfect things are.
The “one thing” Mr. Baird cited is a lingering dispute. In 2008, Iraqi Airways ordered CRJ900 planes from Montreal’s Bombardier– six planes in March, four more in April, the company says. The order was tied up in Iraq’s own legal disputes for years, but after they were settled last year, Bombardier delivered six planes. But Iraq is reneging on the order for the last four, worth $159-million.
That brought Mr. Baird to the salon of Mr. Al-Amiri, the mustachioed, heavy-set Transport Minister, who leads a hard-line Shia faction in Iraq’s coalition. The Iraqis say their air traffic has grown so they need bigger planes. It’s hard to know whether the deal has also been somehow caught up in Iraq’s complex internal politicking. But Conservative foreign policy certainly wouldn’t help this meeting: Mr. Baird is an ardent Iran critic, and Mr. Al-Amiri is leader of the Badr Organization, which, according to the United States, is closely linked to Iran.
The two ministers sat in chairs at one end, with officials from each country lined down each side. “I’m putting a lot of pressure on you,” Mr. Baird said, smiling to his host.
“There’s no need to pressure,” Mr. Al-Amiri replied through an interpreter. “There is already surrender.”
But it was more like pushing rope. Mr. Baird suggested that the dispute will deter trade: “A lot of the Canadian business community are looking to this to see whether a signed contract will be honoured,” he said.
It sounded, at first, like Mr. Al-Amiri might agree. Iraqis are known for fulfilling their commitments, he said. Then the minister complained that the Bombardier planes didn’t suit Iraq’s needs – though he insisted he wanted smooth relations. “I have a suggestion,” he said.
Instead of the CRJ900s, Iraq would buy Bombardier’s bigger, newer, C-Series planes, “one or two years from now.” Iraq can even buy more, he said, as evidence of goodwill.
But, Mr. Baird countered, Bombardier has a contract and is ready to deliver. Mr. Al-Amiri said he didn’t want to go into whether it was binding – the planes aren’t what they want. So it went.
Mr. Baird repeated that a contract should be honoured; Mr. Al-Amiri, clapping his hands together, said nothing commits him to accept the planes.
Seeing it going nowhere, Mr. Baird piped up: “I’ve got an idea. Let officials work on it, and we’ll take it to our cabinets,” he said.
Mr. Al-Amiri said it’s a business dispute, and suggested Bombardier can talk to Iraqi Airways. Mr. Baird repeated his idea, but Mr. Al-Amiri bristled. “You are minister of Foreign Affairs, so I talk to you,” he said, standing up and pulling up his belt. “But everybody has his own dignity.”
Leaving the villa, Mr. Baird called it an instance of trying to protect Canadian interests, and getting nowhere. Bombardier continues negotiations, but won’t comment on them. And Ottawa must decide how far to press a commercial dispute in a place where it’s now trying to revive its diplomacy.