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Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill on Feb. 5, 2013.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Finding Canada out-of-step with its closest allies and trading partners on a major international security issue used to be a rarity.

But Foreign Minister John Baird's tough talk about the conditional deal between Tehran and Washington; a deal backed by Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany displays a stridency that makes Canada something of an outlier.

"Iran has not earned the right to have the benefit of the doubt," Mr. Baird. It was a view applauded among Israeli hawks and denounced by hardliners in Tehran.

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It wasn't always that way.

Recall the summer of 1988, at the end of the brutal eight-year old Iran-Iraq war – the bloodiest since the Second World War – when a fragile ceasefire was secured by a few hundred Canadian troops armed with little more than a UN mandate and Canada's reputation as an honest broker with a commitment to consensus and confidence building.

The whole mission nearly collapsed on Day 1 when armed Iranian Revolutionary Guards said the Canadians weren't going anywhere with their weapons. Cooler heads prevailed in Tehran and one of the least-well-known but most successful of Canadian peacekeeping missions – Operation Vagabond – proceeded.

Canada – alone among Western nations – was sufficiently trusted by both Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, to make them the only armed troops allowed by both sides.

This despite tension in Iranian-Canadian relations. The mullahs still had bitter memories of Canada harbouring six U.S. diplomats and then spiriting them out of Tehran on faked Canadian passports. Canada's embassy had been shuttered nearly a decade earlier.

Also, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was tight with then-President Ronald Reagan, neither of whom could be accused of being 'soft' on Iran. In fact, the U.S. was quite close to Saddam at the time.

Fast forward a few decades. President Barack Obama had significantly tightened the screws on Tehran while toning down the bellicose rhetoric of his predecessor who lumped Iran in with Saddam's Iraq and North Korea as the 'axis of evil."

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Multinational sanctions had crippled Iran's economy. A new, more moderate president was elected in Tehran with what amounted to a mandate to deal with the "Great Satan."

The resulting pact with the U.S. provided for a pause in Iran's nuclear program. It would serve as the foundation for a comprehensive agreement that would deny Iran nuclear warheads but permit nuclear power reactors. At its core, the pact was all about trust-building; the very cornerstone of international security arrangements, long championed by Canadian governments both Liberal and Conservatives.

"People try to be pragmatic or – in the conduct of international affairs – worship at the altar of compromise or consensus," Mr. Baird told The Times of Israel last summer, making clear that wasn't the Harper government's approach. At the same time, long before the Tehran deal, he flatly said of Iran's leaders: "These people don't deserve the benefit of the doubt."

Mr. Baird often points to Tehran's miserable human rights record as evidence of the evilness of the Islamic regime and a justification of Canada's hard line.

But even human rights experts, like the Iranian-born McGill law professor Payam Akhavan, are skeptical of Mr. Baird's focus on human rights. "It seems that Canada's foreign policy on Iran is dictated by certain domestic constituencies," said the jurist whose own family fled persecution. "Skepticism of the Islamic Republic's strategic retreat on the nuclear issue is understandable. But a process of dialogue aimed at preventing war and lifting sanctions that have hurt ordinary Iranians should at least be given a serious chance."

Observers of Canadian foreign policy like Jabeur Fathally, an International Law Professor at the University of Ottawa, are even more blunt. Mr. Baird's position has "nothing to do with economic or human rights, it's all about ideology and to satisfy (his and Mr. Harper's) friends in Israel," he said, noting that human rights abuses in places like Saudi Arabia are far worse than Iran."

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Saying Tehran doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt in a conditional deal that will test whether Iran will make good on its commitments before sanctions are eased is a fundamental shift from Canada's long support for confidence-building and multilateralism. "It's a kind of extremism that doesn't advance Canada's place in the world nor make a difference in Iran," Mr. Fathally said.

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