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Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion talks with reporters at a cabinet retreat at the Algonquin Resort in St. Andrews, N.B., on Monday, Jan. 18, 2016. Of all the areas in which people expect change from the new Liberal government, it is in Middle East policy where it is needed most, they say.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The speedy consummation of Iran's nuclear agreement with the United Nations Security Council this week was a rare positive development in a Middle East racked by turmoil. But even that development could have dire consequences in a region that is in one of its most violent and unpredictable phases yet.

The five-year-old Syrian civil war has killed close to 300,000 people, displaced millions, and the increasing hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran now threatens any chance of a political solution there or in Yemen where another proxy war is raging.

Iran also is leading the fight inside Iraq against the radical Sunni movement known as Islamic State that continues to occupy much of western Iraq. When the shooting stops, whether or not IS forces are eradicated, Iran is likely to have greatly increased its power and political influence in Iraq.

In lawless Libya, the country is at risk of falling completely to radical jihadists, and in Israel, support for which was the keystone of the Harper government's Middle East policy, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu continues to expropriate land in the occupied West Bank for Israeli settlement, jeopardizing a two-state solution to the 67-year-old Palestinian conflict.

It is in this highly volatile region that the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must chart some of its most important policies.

In Ottawa recently, in frank off-the-record conversations with former ambassadors and foreign affairs experts, it was clear there was almost universal relief that what one retired diplomat called "the dark ages" of the Stephen Harper years were over. "On election night there was this huge collective sigh," he said.

An official in the Department of Global Affairs (the new name for the ministry of foreign affairs) said: "One day I could lose my job if I spoke to a journalist … The next, I'm being encouraged to talk to the press." Still, he didn't want to be quoted by name.

Another senior official spoke of the shock he had when he was handed back a report he had given his minister who asked for more of the man's own input. It had been a long time, the official said, since he'd been asked for his recommendations.

For 10 years, in fact, the morale of the once-mighty Canadian diplomatic corps had shrivelled. Mr. Harper disdained international organizations, dismissed international peacekeeping and discounted the value in using Canada's good offices to mediate disputes between nations.

The interest in and funding for several formidable projects evaporated – including so-called track-two diplomacy efforts in which unofficial contacts are made between individuals on both sides of a serious conflict to explore possible resolutions to the parties' differences.

"Rather than maintaining effective bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, Canada [in the Harper era] has been marginalizing itself," Roland Paris, then-director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa, wrote last year.

Of all the areas in which people expect change, it is in Middle East policy where it is needed most, they say.

But in Mr. Trudeau's mandate letter to the new Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion, the Prime Minister indicated his priorities were in taking a more active role to cope with climate change and in improving relations with the United States.

The only thing that might be construed as having a Middle East link was a down-page reference to "acceding to the Arms Trade Treaty," a United Nations convention that could affect the sale of such weapons as armoured personnel carriers to some Middle East nations. Canada is the only member of NATO not to have signed that treaty.

In an "Open Letter to the Next Prime Minister," published seven months before Mr. Trudeau's election, Mr. Paris, now the Prime Minister's foreign policy adviser, urged that the policy emphasis be on East Asia, as well as on the United States. But, above all, he wrote, Canada should return to multilateral diplomacy, an approach played down during the Harper years, in order to better achieve common objectives with our allies.

Mr. Paris's only reference to Middle East matters was to say Canada "should uphold Israel's right to exist … but without diminishing the rights of Palestinians."

However, the issues afflicting the Middle East have a way of popping up and dominating the agenda. In its first three months in office, the new government already has ramped up the program of bringing Syrian refugees to Canada; it has announced it will end its bombing of Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria; and it has said it will honour the commitment of the previous government to allow the sale of $15-billion worth of Canadian-made well-armed light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia for the use of its domestic national guard.

The government also has declared that, with Iran's compliance to the agreement on nuclear restrictions, Canada will be ending its economic sanctions against the country. A bid to reinstate diplomatic relations with Tehran, severed by the Harper government in 2012, may soon be forthcoming.

Mr. Dion, in his first interview as Foreign Minister, spoke grandly of Canada restoring its role as an honest broker in the Middle East and assured Israel, which has coasted on Mr. Harper's unquestioning support, that it had nothing to worry about from Canada strengthening its relationship with the other legitimate partners in the region.

But moves in this area will come slowly, a senior Liberal adviser explained.

"First we want to make sure we've got the Jewish vote back," he said.

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