Canada’s puzzling diplomatic stumbling

Cesar Jaramillo Nuclear Weapons

Cesar Jaramillo

Published in the Waterloo Region Record

If Canada’s abrupt move to sever diplomatic ties with Iran was driven by a desire to deliver a strong, unequivocal message about how it conducts foreign policy, then mission accomplished.

In case any doubt remains, let us spell it out: Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has jettisoned Canada’s hard-earned international standing as a champion of diplomacy in times of crisis.

Like a schoolyard kid who gives someone he doesn’t like the silent treatment, the Canadian government has chosen to disregard diplomatic engagement as an effective way to approach a regime with which it has significant disagreements.

But the global diplomatic arena is no grade school. The international political landscape is marked by disagreements, many of which could potentially destabilize an entire region or even the entire globe. This reality should accentuate, not undermine, the need to maintain diplomatic avenues and pursue diplomatic courses of action.

It’s not the first time the Canadian government has taken a harsh public position against Iran. Following the release of an International Atomic Energy Agency report critical of Iran’s nuclear program last November, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird called Iran “the gravest threat to international peace and security.” He repeated the phrase this month when he announced that Canada’s embassy in Tehran would be closed and Iranian diplomats in Ottawa expelled.

He was wrong then and he is wrong now.

The gravest threat to international peace and security is the existence of nuclear weapons — in any state. The proliferation of such weapons is a legitimate concern, but it will never be resolved as long as some states are permitted to retain nuclear weapons, while others are condemned for trying to acquire them.

Moreover, some nuclear programs — like that of nuclear-armed Israel, one of the few states not to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty — avoid all international oversight. The avid attention given to Iran’s potential development of nuclear weapons stands in stark contrast to the lack of scrutiny of Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

The Harper government has made other diplomatic missteps. In July of last year, Canada took the unusual step of boycotting the UN Conference on Disarmament — the premier multilateral disarmament forum in the world — when North Korea assumed the presidency. No other country followed suit, not even North Korea’s most prominent adversaries, the United States and South Korea. As all conference on disarmament member states know, the presidency of the conference is determined solely by alphabetical rotation and does not in any way represent a validation of a state or its regime.

In the intense high-stakes manoeuvring over Iran’s potential development of nuclear weapons, the international community is faced with difficult choices: military action against Iran or further diplomatic engagement.

While the government of Israel is increasingly wary of further diplomatic efforts and beats the war drums ever more loudly, Europe and the United States are using diplomacy coupled with sanctions to pressure the Iranian regime, rejecting a military strike for the time being.

By severing diplomatic relations with Iran and aligning itself with Israel, the Canadian government has effectively cut off lines of communication with a key player in the most volatile region in the world at a time when they are most necessary. The trade-off: praise from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for Canada’s “courageous act.”

Netanyahu called for other countries to follow the Canadian lead. But, as with the 2011 UN conference on disarmament boycott, this is an unlikely scenario.

While it considers some Iranian statements “inimical to efforts to deliver regional stability,” Australia’s department of foreign affairs and trade has indicated that it will protect national interests by “maintaining and enhancing bilateral relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Countries including Germany, New Zealand, Italy, Brazil, France, South Korea, Austria, Norway, Spain, Mexico and the Netherlands are keeping their embassies in Tehran open.

Breaking off relations with Iran will not only besmirch Canada’s record of diplomatic engagement but will make day-to-day consular affairs more burdensome for thousands of Iranians and Canadians with ties to both countries. Re-establishing normal diplomatic relations could take years or even decades.

No one seems to know what triggered the Canadian government’s sudden decision, despite muddled explanations citing Iran’s human rights record, its nuclear program, and animosity toward Israel. And Iranians are not the only ones baffled with the move.

“Canada’s reasons for acting so suddenly are not convincing,” argues former Canadian ambassador to Iran John Mundy. In the absence of concrete information regarding specific threats against Canada, adds Mundy, “the question remains why have we taken this drastic action and in particular, why now?”

Federal Liberal leader Bob Rae said that “we don’t simply cut off diplomatic relations with every country we disagree with.” NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar said, “for us to make a difference we have to be there. We have to show up, and now we’re walking away.” And according to Avi Primor, former Israeli ambassador to Germany and the European Union, “such a move leaves the country that severed relations in a position of weakness.”

The reasons for shutting down relations with Iran may not be entirely clear, but the most immediate consequence is.

When it comes to engaging one of the most geopolitically strategic regimes in the Middle East, Canada has effectively taken a deliberate plunge to diplomatic irrelevance.

© Copyright 2012 Metroland Media Group Ltd.

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