Hugh Segal is a Mathews Fellow in Global Public Policy at the Queen’s School of Policy Studies, Senior Advisor at Aird and Berlis, LLP, and a former chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Special Senate Committee on Anti-Terrorism.
On the surface, it may not be obvious what Canada can do about the brewing crisis around Iran. Investigating the motivations and intelligence that led to the U.S. government’s decision to neutralize Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the most powerful and malevolent supreme commander of Iran’s potent terrorist and proxy forces worldwide, is not likely to be on the agenda of our federal government and the high command of our Armed Forces right now.
But the tensions between Iran and the U.S. are most assuredly our problem. As a founding partner of the NATO treaty, which provides for mutual defence between the 28 member nations, an Iranian attack upon American forces, embassies, homeland or personnel would trigger an Article 5 Treaty obligation for Canada to engage, just as was the case after the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, even though no state actor claimed responsibility.
Canada’s foreign minister was quite correct in urging restraint upon all parties last week – a note that was echoed by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at a Monday meeting of NATO ambassadors. But restraint is usually the product of a clear understanding by all involved of the consequences of unrestrained aggression. While that meeting was right to consider the dynamics relative to the alliance mission in Iraq that is now under Canadian command – a mission that has been suspended – a broader ministerial meeting to underline the reality of Article 5 would be broadly constructive. After all, it would be a serious path to restraint to make it perfectly clear that NATO would view a clear attack on the United States, its people, forces or homeland – be it kinetic, cyber or via terrorist proxy – as an act of aggression against all NATO members.
Canada should, in fact, be calling for immediate NATO ministerial meetings so that this common resolve can emerge. Doing so would further motivate Russia – which engaged in joint naval exercises with China and Iran in the Gulf of Oman in late December and is not without substantive interests and influence in Tehran – to urge restraint on their Iranian client-state colleagues. A Canadian call for an urgent Security Council meeting would also be of value. The UN Secretary-General has called for restraint as well, but what should the UN be doing to help bring it about?
NATO was created as a bulwark for Western Europe against the old Soviet Union. But that limited mandate did not prevent the organization from engaging in the Balkans and Afghanistan when their stability was threatened. The strategic importance of the Straits of Hormuz to global energy flows, as well as Iran’s deployment of proxy forces to wreak havoc in places such as Buenos Aires, Yemen and many spots in between over the last 20 years, makes the nature of its threat to Western stability more than theoretical.
If, as our Prime Minister has stated, “Canada is back,” then this crisis requires that we engage in a mature and strategic way. There are key questions that need to be crunched: What resources can we deploy from our regular or Special Forces? How can our intelligence resources be deployed in support of our NATO ally? What special self-defence measures will be required to contain Iranian hostilities?
That our Armed Force high command is already considering contingency options is a not a matter of conjecture, because the professional and competent leadership of our Canadian Forces is a given. But the Canadian Armed Forces engage at the discretion of the duly elected government and Parliament of Canada. Now is the time for Canadian ministers and key advisers to be engaging with opposition parties on the nature of the challenge ahead.
If Canada even considers taking a “none-of-our-business” stance, it would constitute an abdication of alarming self-indulgence. The “tit-for-tat” cycle in Iraq began with Iranian proxies attacking and killing a U.S. contractor in Iraq, not to mention the Iranian drone attack on Saudi oil facilities and the shooting down of a U.S. surveillance drone in questionable circumstances, to which the U.S. responded with restraint. The storming of the American embassy in Baghdad by an Iranian-armed and Iranian-financed Shiite militia was a further provocation.
Canada has allies and interests in the region. Pretending this doesn’t concern us could cost Canada seriously on the international stage. Canada has never looked away when our values or allies faced serious threat – and the first crisis of the new decade is not the time to start.
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