Prime Minister Stephen Harper is right to be deeply concerned about Iran, but his recent statements go too far. He has asserted that Iran's leaders would have " no hesitation" about using nuclear weapons. If this is your view, then negotiations don't make much sense – better to invoke the 1930s and advocate confrontation. Despite denials, the Prime Minister seems to be preparing Canadians to support a military strike against Iran's nuclear program.
Is this where Canada should be positioned? Certainly, the Prime Minister is working closely with our allies, but there is still quite a difference between his statements and those of U.S. President Barack Obama. Mr. Obama has taken no options off the table but is working toward a negotiated solution; Mr. Harper seems to be tilting in a different direction. This is the first time in decades that a Canadian prime minister, Liberal or Conservative, appears to be advocating approaches that reduce diplomatic opportunities for peace during an international crisis.
One such opportunity, an initiative by Turkey and Brazil, almost reached a breakthrough. In 2010, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and then-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva flew to Tehran and negotiated a deal to move a significant portion of Iran's enriched uranium offshore for reprocessing. They had a prior understanding with Washington about what might be acceptable and came very close to delivering. During the few weeks that it took them to convince Tehran, the situation in Washington changed and the political room Mr. Obama had for deal-making shifted. The peace initiative failed, but could still be resuscitated in modified form when Iran returns to the negotiating table in Turkey next month. This is the type of middle-power diplomacy that Canada has practised with skill and success in the past; we should be there now.
There is another aspect to what Ottawa is advocating that should give cause for concern. After an attack, Iranian leaders would almost surely close down the human-rights movement as they rallied their country's population. And yet it is precisely this movement that offers the most long-term hope for Iran to emerge from isolation and rejoin the international community. Moreover, support for human rights has been a fundamental principle of our policy toward Iran. We have led successive UN votes condemning its human-rights record; we draw attention to specific cases of abuse, particularly ones involving our own dual citizens; and we provide refuge for Iranians who want to leave. We should not abandon them.
Under present circumstances, there is virtually no chance that the United Nations Security Council will support military action against Iran, but yet this has not swayed advocates of a strike. Canada will have a choice: We can remain faithful to the system of collective security under the UN charter that we helped to create, or we can support a pre-emptive war undertaken without full international legitimacy. We chose the first option in 2003, despite considerable risk to our relationship with the United States, when Washington launched a pre-emptive war against Iraq. We should remain true to our principles now.
Finally, even advocates of a military strike admit that it would not stop Iran's nuclear program. At best, it would delay it. Indeed, many analysts believe it would make weaponization of Iran's nuclear program inevitable.
Here are four suggestions for the Canadian government:
- Tone down the rhetoric. In particular, make clear to the Iranian people that we do not support demonizing their country – our concern is with the policies of their leaders.
- Inform Israel that Canada wants a negotiated solution to the crisis and will not support unilateral military action. Our support for Israel should not be unconditional.
- Speak up for human rights in Iran.
- Encourage Israel to resume the peace process with the Palestinians and re-engage with its neighbours, particularly our NATO ally, Turkey. (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be in Ottawa on March 2.)
Iran's leaders have done many abhorrent things, but they are neither irrational nor suicidal. They are best understood as leaders of a failed revolution who are now preoccupied with self-preservation.
Canada can play a bigger role in enhancing the cohesion and unity of the international community at a time when it's essential for Iran to engage in meaningful negotiations to resolve the crisis.
John Mundy is a former Canadian ambassador to Iran who was expelled in 2007. Now retired, he is working on a book about his experience.