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Opinion How the Liberals got trapped without a policy in the Middle East

Threats are flying, along with missiles, in the Middle East. And, for possibly the first time in seven decades, Canada has no role, basically no strategy and sometimes no physical presence in the region. Does that matter?

Iran and the United States have spent the past week in a dangerous and wholly unnecessary military escalation, provoked by U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal last year from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the successful seven-country Iranian peace agreement that the United States left against the will of the other signatories, and to the great benefit of Iran’s anti-Western hardliners. Meanwhile, Israel of late has been engaged in terrifying missile exchanges with Hamas extremists in Gaza, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enters his second decade in office on a self-declared mission to breach the long-established foundations of peaceful co-existence and to goad Mr. Trump into war with Iran.

Under those circumstances, it might seem like a calculated act of wisdom for a Canadian government to stay out of the fray. There is nothing Ottawa could do, even in a minor role, to reduce the odds of conflict. There are no trustworthy allies or negotiating partners. Although Justin Trudeau promised during his 2015 campaign to reopen Canada’s embassy in Tehran, there would be nothing to gain in doing so right now. And Canada has hardly any economic interests there: Our trade with the entire region is comparable to our trade with the state of Florida.

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But the Trudeau government’s lack of a clear message or strategy in the Middle East is less a calculated tactic than a matter of accident and circumstance. There are exceptions: On Saudi Arabia, they led the pack in condemning the kingdom’s grotesque humanitarian abuses and breaking ties with its leaders (although that may have been partly by accident). There’s some aid to good causes in Syria. But on the region’s most dangerous tensions, in Iran and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Liberals have been hemmed in by domestic politics.

To understand how this came about, it’s worth a close reading of a study of the Liberals’ “failed re-engagement” in Iran published this year by University of Ottawa political scientist Thomas Juneau, a Mideast specialist who spent a decade as a military analyst. Interviewing dozens of officials and insiders who’ve served under two governments, he found that the Trudeau Liberals became unwittingly trapped beneath Conservative policies they’ve been unable to escape without political peril.

The problem is that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives had a very clear Middle East strategy. It was absurd, counterproductive to peace and damaging to the people of the region, but it was explicit: the Saudi kingdom and the far-right Netanyahu government in Israel were steadfast allies, to be supported in all circumstances. And that support included ending all engagement with Iran, even if that engagement made Tehran less menacing and bolstered democratic forces there.

That policy, according to the Tories interviewed by Dr. Juneau, included legislation designed to trap future governments into the same positions, by raising the cost of switching to a more engaged position. One was the shuttering of embassies in Tehran and Ottawa. Another was the benign-sounding Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which would force Canada, if it reopened diplomatic ties, to seize any Iranian property in the name of U.S. victims of terrorist groups supported by Iran.

In 2016, Mr. Trudeau made genuine efforts to reopen diplomatic relations with Tehran. There were good reasons to do so: A rising tide of citizen protests against the ayatollahs, and a new economic engagement with the West in the wake of the peace agreement, meant that an embassy could be an important platform for change in the region – and would be very helpful to the Obama administration’s ties with Canada, also eagerly pursued by Mr. Trudeau.

But the emergence of Mr. Trump, the resulting resurgence of hardliners in Iran and the imprisonment and death of Iranian-Canadian Kavous Seyed-Emami in Tehran (and Iran’s refusal to allow his wife, Maryam Mombeini, to return to Canada) meant that overcoming the Tory policy traps was a risk no longer worth taking.

The Tories used their policy as a low-cost way to secure the votes of ideological conservatives who had become disillusioned by the government’s moderate domestic policies. The Liberals had few such gains to make: Iranian-Canadians and Jewish Canadians are divided in half on these issues, and do not vote as a bloc. But the lack of any clear position, or set of values, does endanger the Liberals’ support in key ridings.

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“For the Liberals, the risk is being squeezed in the middle,” Dr. Juneau told me. “You can see the calculus of caution – of avoiding clarity, of avoiding a defined position.”

Since the 1940s, Canada has played an outsize role in the region − in protecting Iranians from a dangerous regime, in creating and negotiating the pathway to co-existence and sovereignty for Israelis and Palestinians under international law, in introducing peacekeeping. It’s probably just as well we’re stuck on the sidelines right now – but in the longer term, it’s a lost opportunity.

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