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Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird delivers a rousing speech to the American Jewish Committee in Washington on May 14, 2014.Cliff Owen/The Associated Press

Iran remains the "biggest threat to global peace" as it "oppresses with terror at home and sponsors it abroad," Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird said Wednesday in a hard-line speech that won him a standing ovation from the American Jewish Congress.

Decrying the decades before the government led by Stephen Harper when "Canadian foreign policy was defined by simply taking the middle path" in the Middle East and elsewhere, Mr. Baird delivered a rousing speech to the AJC, considered by many to be among the most influential lobbying groups in the United States.

At one point, he digressed from his prepared notes to recount an anecdote from 20 years ago when, while attending a Canadian foreign service briefing, he was told that it was too difficult to tell the "black hats from the white hats" in the cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Mr. Baird told the AJC that he was stunned and doodled on a piece of paper, drawing a white hat with the label Israel and "our best friend" and a black hat and the label Hezbollah and "our worst enemy."

"We don't have briefings like that any more," he said as the audience chuckled.

(Mr. Baird apparently attended briefings by senior Canadian foreign affairs officials when he was a political staffer to former Conservative cabinet member Perrin Beatty.)

The minister dismissed as bygone the era of Canadian foreign relations when policy was driven by "testing the temperature of those around the table and landing somewhere not too hot, not too cool." That's relativism, not leadership, and "the easy way out," he said.

The unabashedly pro-Israel minister was a welcome returnee to the AJC's annual gathering, which attracts thousands of delegates from around the United States and Jewish communities in many countries.

Mr. Baird was "back by popular demand after wowing the crowd just two short years ago," said Matthew Bronfman, an AJC executive board member who introduced the minister and put in a pitch for the Harper government's biggest bilateral effort by saying the "AJC has vigorously supported the Keystone XL pipeline," which President Barack Obama has delayed deciding on for the second time.

As he took the stage, Mr. Baird jokingly thanked "Hillary [Clinton] for agreeing to come and be my warm-up act."

Although "Hillary and I are from different sides of the political aisle," he said, he has great admiration for the former first lady, who lost to Mr. Obama in 2008 but was then appointed secretary of state by him. "I struggled to find reasons to disagree with her when we were counterparts," he said.

Ms. Clinton had just finished a far more even-handed speech in which she urged the AJC to give the current diplomatic initiatives with Iran a chance. The ongoing talks are "promising developments" and "it's time to give diplomacy space to work," she said.

However, Mr. Baird, who cut Canada's diplomatic ties with Tehran in 2012, warned that the ruling Islamic regime should not be trusted.

It would be nice "to believe that Iran is genuinely committed to positive change," he said, but "we do not have the luxury to be naive, nor do the Iranian people, who have suffered for far too long."

Human rights abuses have worsened under the supposedly more moderate government elected last year in Tehran, Mr. Baird said, calling the Interior Minister the "Minister of Murder."

As for Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran insists has no military purpose, the minister was openly scornful. "In Canada, we do things differently. We build our nuclear reactors close to the electricity grid and we don't manufacture medical isotopes under 300 feet of rock," he said, referring to the widely separated, remote and deeply buried nuclear facilities in Iran.

"A nuclear Iran is not only a threat to the United States, it's a threat to Canada, and a threat to Israel and our allies," he said.

The minister spoke of his government's steadfast backing of Israel. "Canada has been home to Jews for more than 250 years. There are nearly 350,000 Canadians who share your heritage and faith," he told the AJC delegates.

In his introduction, Mr. Bronfman said that "Israel has no better friend outside of this country than John Baird."