When Benjamin Netanyahu amped up his dispute with Barack Obama, it placed Stephen Harper in an uncomfortable position.
Mr. Harper has made staunch support for Israel a signature piece of his foreign policy, and has usually echoed the Israeli prime minister's warnings about Iran. But if he publicly sides with Israel, he'll be siding against his most important ally, the U.S.
You might think that Mr. Harper would be happy to annoy Mr. Obama – there have been a lot of prickly disagreements over issues like the Keystone XL pipeline. But this PM has usually made it a point to avoid disputes with the United States over major security matters – and in this case, the U.S. is also working closely with Canada's other major allies Britain, France, and Germany.
On Tuesday, at least, Mr. Harper's government avoided taking sides. But they are now clearly mutually exclusive views, on an issue that could be the difference between war and peace.
When Mr. Netanyahu spoke to the U.S. Congress Tuesday, he railed against a potential deal aimed at curtailing Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons, which is now being negotiated between Iran and the so-called P5-plus-one countries – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany.
The Israeli Prime Minister made it clear he's not speculating about what the deal might be. The elements of the agreement on the table are known, he said – and they are a "very bad deal" that will help Iran get the bomb, not thwart it. Mr. Obama flatly disagreed, insisting the deal would be the best way to prevent a nuclear Iran – and noted Mr. Netanyahu raised similar objections when an interim agreement was struck with Iran two years ago.
So which is it, Canada? Do we agree with Mr. Netanyahu, or Mr. Obama? Is this deal disastrous, or the best hope to prevent a nuclear Iran?
On Tuesday, Mr. Harper's government didn't really answer. A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson, Julie Di Mambro, said Tehran does not appear interested in resolving the concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency about the "possible military dimensions" of its nuclear program. But she didn't say if, like Mr. Netanyahu, Canada thinks the deal on the table is dangerous.
"While we support the efforts of the P5+1 process, we're skeptical of Iran's nuclear intentions," she said in an e-mail.
Judging by past declarations, Mr. Harper's government leans toward Mr. Netanyahu's position. Last year, then-Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said the test for any deal with Tehran is whether it essentially removes Iran's capacity to enrich uranium by requiring it to dismantle all but a few hundred centrifuges – but the deal on the table would reportedly allow Iran to keep 6,500.
More recently, Mr. Harper's government has suggested it won't ease Canadian sanctions if the P5-plus-one countries do reach a deal with Iran. Shimon Fogel, the chief executive officer of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and a close watcher of the issue, said keeping sanctions in place would put Canadian actions in line with Mr. Netanyahu's call for western nations to keep pressure on Iran. "Based on statements to date, I'd be surprised if Canada lifts sanctions," Mr. Fogel said.
That, of course, would leave Canada's position at odds with that of the United States and with its other major allies in the P5-plus-one – Britain, France, and Germany.
For Mr. Harper, that would be an unusual place to be. He's had political differences with allies. But he has made it an unspoken principle to try not to be offside with the U.S. on the big issues of global security, since Canada's security is so closely intertwined with the U.S. and other major allies.
There have been bigger rifts with the U.S. on security matters in past, notably when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien refused to join the Iraq war. But Mr. Harper – who criticized Mr. Chrétien's decision on Iraq mostly because it left Canada standing apart from its key allies – has considered it important to avoid such major security differences. Opposing a nuclear deal with Iran would not only make him out of synch with the U.S. on a major security issue, but the odd-man-out within the G7, for example.
That is surely why Mr. Harper's government has so far spoken in signals, by indicating it is unlikely to lift sanctions on Iran even if a deal is struck. Because taking explicit sides only makes Mr. Harper's uneasy position more uncomfortable.