When a new government was elected in Iran and began expressing a different attitude toward negotiations with the West, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu warned that nothing had changed. Mr. Netanyahu spoke darkly of developments in Iran being a smokescreen. Predictably, his views were echoed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Canadian government.
When the United States, its major European allies plus Russia and China began to negotiate a deal to halt temporarily Iran's nuclear program in exchange for some lifting of sanctions, Mr. Netanyahu decried the negotiations, calling them a "historic mistake." Canada's government didn't go quite that far, but it did express grave doubts about Iran and the negotiations.
In both cases, the Harper government remained blind to developments in Iran, where it had already closed Canada's embassy, because it sees the Middle East through a Netanyahu lens. The result was the further marginalization of Canada in the Mideast (a region where Canada is a marginal factor anyway) and a distancing of this country from its traditional Western allies. Put bluntly, given a choice between aligning itself with the United States, which wanted to explore prospects, and Israel, which did not, the Harper government plumped for Israel.
Now, it turns out that at least in the short term, the United States and its negotiating partners were right and the Israelis and Canada were wrong. Negotiations with Iran for a short-term deal have succeeded, although verifying compliance will be critical and a short-term deal does not guarantee conclusion of a successful long-term one.
Next week, pursuant to the deal, Iran will stop producing near-weapons-grade nuclear fuel, and scale back or freeze other nuclear work. It will halt plans to commission a heavy-water reactor capable of producing plutonium, and it will allow enhanced inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Other kinds of nuclear work, however, will continue.
In exchange, Iran will receive $7-billion in sanctions relief, and can resume trade in products such as oil, cars and certain metals. Will Canada agree to ease appropriate sanctions, including ones that went beyond those imposed by the United Nations, or will it hew to the Israeli line that any reduction of pressure on Iran of any kind is a fool's paradise?
In Tehran, the deal has been denounced by hard-liners and praised by more moderate voices. In Washington, a coalition of legislators, the powerful Israeli lobby, right-wing think tanks and conservative columnists are rallying against the deal. It is with this coalition, and of course Mr. Netanyahu's government, that Mr. Harper's government will likely align itself.
The short-term deal will last for just six months, during which time more extensive negotiations with the Iranians will unfold. There is no guarantee of success, but if there had been no six-month deal – as the critics would have preferred – there would have been no chance whatsoever of any permanent deal. And what would the alternatives have been then?
Even more sanctions? It's hard to imagine what these might have been, given that Iran was already subject to eight UN resolutions and very tough sanctions that were badly hurting its economy.
Elements in Israel had spoken in favour of military action to stop Iran's nuclear program. The risks of such action would have been immense, and the likelihood of complete military success would have been dim, which is why the Americans privately tried to restrain the war party in Israel without publicly ruling out a military strike.
Iran is a much more complicated country, with many different internal interests at play, than it appears in the Harper government's black-and-white view of the world. Other countries were right to probe the changes that occurred in Iran after the last election, because not only were negotiations a better option than alternatives around the nuclear program, but Iran as the world's major Shia country cannot be ignored in any resolution or improvement in regional tensions.
Nobody has to like the theocratic regime in Iran to deal with it, and dealing with it is better than practising the foreign policy of the podium.