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Iran’s diplomatic overtures more show than substance, Baird tells UN

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is pictured in Toronto on Sept. 22, 2013. Canada is facing renewed pressure to join a landmark United Nations treaty that regulates the lucrative arms trade after reports that the United States is signing on.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird warned on Monday that the recent diplomatic opening by Iran is more show than substance in a strongly worded address to the main body of the United Nations outlining the foreign-policy priorities of the Harper government.

While some observers might consider the latest statements from Iran encouraging, "sound bites do not remove threats to global security," said Mr. Baird. "Kind words, a smile and a charm offensive are not a substitute for real action."

Canada, he added, will judge the Iranian regime on the basis of actual deeds and results.

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The note of caution came days after the highest-level contacts between the United States and Iran in more than 30 years. On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama had a brief telephone conversation with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, the first such interaction between the leaders of the two countries since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Mr. Baird is not the only party urging skepticism. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Mr. Obama in Washington on Monday and said he appreciated the U.S. emphasis on verifiable actions from Iran rather than simply conciliatory words.

"Iran is committed to Israel's destruction, so for Israel, the ultimate test of a future agreement with Iran is whether or not Iran dismantles its military nuclear program. … That's the bottom line," said Mr. Netanyahu, who is scheduled to address the UN on Tuesday.

During his speech, Mr. Baird reiterated Ottawa's staunch support for Israel and its dislike for the inner workings of the UN. The Harper government has had a prickly relationship with the institution ever since Canada suffered a surprise defeat in 2010 in its bid for a temporary seat on the Security Council.

"Canada's government doesn't seek to have our values or our principled foreign policy validated by elites who would rather 'go along to get along,'" said Mr. Baird. "The billions who are hungry, or lack access to clean water, or are displaced or cannot read or write do not care how many members sit on the Security Council."

Mr. Baird spoke for 25 minutes on the penultimate day of the annual fall gathering of world leaders at the UN. He began by honouring the victims of terrorism, including Annemarie Desloges, the Canadian diplomat killed in the attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi.

He used his moment in the limelight to draw attention to three of Ottawa's policy priorities: improving the health of women and children, combatting sexual violence in wartime and ending the practice of forcing young girls into marriage.

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"Since I began these remarks, 100 children have been forced into marriage; 1,100 per hour; more than 26,000 per day," said Mr. Baird. "Even though some might prefer that we kept quiet, the discomfort of the audience is of small concern, particularly in the context of a crime that calls to heaven for justice."

He called for a political resolution of the bloody conflict in Syria, but cautioned world leaders not to "confuse a peaceful, negotiated outcome with equivocation or moral uncertainty. There can be no moral ambiguity about the use of chemical weapons, particularly on civilians."

Mr. Baird also voiced support for the new negotiations underway between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, calling them "encouraging."

Last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper travelled to New York, but for the third year in a row did not address the General Assembly, the UN's main body and its bully pulpit. By the time Mr. Baird spoke on Monday morning, the annual pageant of diplomacy was winding down and most of the world leaders gathered for the UN meetings had returned home.

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