Iran’s rage over the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani risks dragging Canada and the rest of the Western alliance into a new confrontation in the Middle East, courtesy of Donald Trump.
Most Canadians would want no part of such a conflict, especially since the U.S. President might simply be seeking to distract attention from his impending impeachment trial in the Senate.
Every minute is dangerous right now. How willing is Justin Trudeau to distance himself from this rogue President’s rash acts against Iran? What price might Canada pay as a result? The Prime Minister’s second term could be shaped by how he handles this crisis.
A statement from Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne on Friday offered no support for Mr. Trump’s action, beyond noting that Canada “has long been concerned” about Gen. Soleimani, "whose aggressive actions have had a destabilizing effect in the region and beyond.”
Mr. Champagne’s statement echoed those of European leaders, who joined Canada in calling for restraint and de-escalation on both sides.
That won’t happen. Iran will strike back, perhaps in Iraq, where hundreds of Canadians are stationed as part of Canada’s NATO commitment to training Iraqi forces in the fight against the Islamic State. There is also the risk that Iran will attack U.S. allies, such as Canadian and European nationals within or outside the region.
Retired U.S. army general David Petraeus, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and a former CIA director, considers the assassination of Gen. Soleimani more significant than the killing of Osama bin Laden or Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“But now the question is: How does Iran respond with its own forces and its proxies, and then what does that lead the U.S. to do?" he told Foreign Policy Magazine on Friday. To that question no one has an answer. But many observers expect a response from Iran to come next week, after the funeral for Gen. Soleimani.
This leaves Mr. Trudeau in a difficult situation. The Canada-U.S. relationship remains pivotal. The reworked North American free-trade agreement awaits ratification in the U.S. Senate and Canadian Parliament. Mr. Trudeau has worked hard to keep his relationship with Mr. Trump cordial, despite the President’s tendency to insult the Prime Minister, sometimes apparently just for the fun of it.
Whatever tensions exist between the West Wing and the Prime Minister’s Office, the close working relationship between the U.S. and Canadian defence and security establishments remains intact.
But Mr. Trump’s high stakes gamble – that killing one of the most senior figures in the Iranian regime will deter rather than provoke further acts of aggression from Iran – could lead to some kind of asymmetrical war, with the U.S. military attacking Iranian targets, and Iran responding through militias and proxies in Iraq and possibly in North America and Europe. What would Mr. Trump expect from Canada in such a conflict?
This country’s best hope lies in working with European and Asian allies, including Japan, to forge a coherent response that provokes neither the Americans nor the Iranians. But that may prove impossible.
To make things even more complicated, we will all need to figure out how much U.S. actions against Iran are based on calculated national interest, and how much they are the whim of an erratic and uninformed President who is trying to change the impeachment channel.
And internally, the Trudeau government will need to sort out the responsibilities of Mr. Champagne, who is Foreign Affairs Minister, and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who continues to be responsible for Canada-U.S. relations.
The year 2020 will be momentous. Although Republican senators will almost certainly acquit the President, the impeachment trial could be riotous. The Democratic Party, which is split between centrist and progressive wings, will struggle to choose a nominee to take on Mr. Trump in the election. With the United States more polarized than at any time since the Vietnam War, and with this President willing to go to any length to defeat his opponents, that election could be the ugliest in decades.
And now, a fresh quagmire looms in the Middle East: the United States against Iran. Will either side stand down? If not, years of escalating violence lie ahead, with economic shocks as well.
This Liberal government will be judged on its ability to limit the damage to Canada from this most dangerous year.