U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from a nuclear deal with Iran drove a wedge between Canada’s major allies, but Justin Trudeau’s reaction was muted.
This Prime Minister, it is fair to say, wasn’t looking to get mixed up in an international argument over the Middle East.
Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals have always argued the Iran deal is good for the world, but taking a pointed stand on it now means being at odds with Mr. Trump just when NAFTA talks might be reaching a critical juncture. The PM used a low-key tone.
“I hope the [agreement] stays in place,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters before Mr. Trump made his announcement. Afterward, he had nothing to add. European leaders were vowing to work to keep the Iran deal alive without the United States and, hours later, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland issued a muted statement “reaffirming” support for the agreement, with no mention of what comes next.
Make no mistake, it’s a reasonable calculation. Canada didn’t have a big role to play anyway. Its relationship with Iran is basically frozen. Bigger allies who are actually parties to the Iran deal − Britain, France and Germany − had desperately lobbied Mr. Trump, to no avail.
And for Mr. Trudeau, there wasn’t much to gain politically from making a big noise about Iran.
But that doesn’t mean the fallout won’t trouble him. It might bring a new psychodrama about whether the United States will attack Iran. And Canada’s biggest allies, the ones it counts on in international security matters, are divided.
The Iran deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was the thing that stopped the high-stakes drama last time. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had repeatedly warned Iran was getting close to nuclear weapons and hinted that if the United States didn’t strike Iran, Israel would. Instead, sanctions were imposed and the P5-plus-one – the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany – brokered a deal. Iran would limit its nuclear capacity and sanctions would be lifted.
The deal had flaws, University of Ottawa professor Thomas Juneau said, but it did put real restraints on Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons. Scrapping the deal meant lifting those restraints.
As much as Mr. Trump insisted the deal should have gone farther, to place restrictions on Iranian missile development or its support for organizations such as Hezbollah, his biggest allies kept making the same point: If you scrap this agreement, you don’t have anything better.
The leaders of France and Germany went to Washington. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson even appeared on Fox & Friends, and wrote an op-ed for the New York Times.
Now, Mr. Trump has decided and no one knows what’s next. A lot depends on the reaction.
Mr. Trump said he’d reimpose sanctions – but it seems the Europeans won’t. For Iran, that’s not as bad as global sanctions. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani tentatively suggested Iran might stay in the deal, or perhaps start enriching uranium again. In Iran’s political system, as Prof. Juneau noted, it’s not Mr. Rouhani but Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who decides – probably after a tug-of-war between hard-liners and moderates.
Mr. Trudeau will wait. While European leaders were shuttling to Washington the Canadian PM wasn’t calling world leaders about the Iran deal, according to his office.
Canada’s relationship with Iran is already dormant. The Liberals promised to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran that were cut off in 2012. But Prof. Juneau noted the talks have stalled for a long time, most recently because of Tehran’s refusal to allow Iranian-Canadian Maryam Mombeini, the widow of a university professor who died in an Iranian prison, to return to Canada.
Politically, there’s nothing but headaches for Mr. Trudeau in even talking about the Iran deal. Mr. Netanyahu sent a senior Israeli intelligence official to Canada last week to seek its support for scrapping the Iran deal, Mr. Trudeau’s government kept mum. The Liberals rather they didn’t have to talk about it at all.
Still, the broader significance of what happened Tuesday will be worrying for Mr. Trudeau. Mr. Trump, ostensibly the leader of the free world, split from the team. In major global security issues, Canada’s influence comes from working with the United States and big European allies. It appears they don’t work well together. And Mr. Trudeau is supposed to set a common agenda for this divided bunch next month, at the Group of Seven summit.