Storm clouds of war with Iran are gathering strength. Nothing else explains Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s abrupt and unwelcome decision to sever diplomatic ties. Even with a regime as obdurate as the one in Tehran, it’s better to talk with one’s adversaries than to freeze them out.
Indeed the sheer suddenness of Canada’s move on Friday stoked fears of an imminent attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, which Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird tried to dispel. “We have no information about a military strike,” his office said. None that it is prepared to share, at least.
But what other reason could Ottawa have had for moving so dramatically, so unexpectedly? If Canadian diplomats were at risk in Tehran, as Baird claimed, Ottawa could have quietly brought them out until the danger had passed. That needn’t have required severing ties, shutting our thinly-staffed embassy in Tehran, or expelling Iranian diplomats. This will create hardship for Canadian citizens in Iran, including some who face death sentences, and for Canadians with family there. There’s got to be more to this.
The rest of the grab-bag of reasons Baird advanced for cutting ties — as the Americans did decades ago and the British recently — was less than persuasive. We have long known that Iran’s leaders have a secret nuclear program. We knew that they arm Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria; that they bankroll terrorists; that they vilify and threaten Israel; and that they hold human rights in contempt. Yet Harper has dealt with them for six years. What changed?
Barely six months ago, Harper cautioned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against a rush to war. “We want to see every action taken to get a peaceful resolution,” he said. Severing ties suggests that Ottawa has given up trying to stave off a conflict. If so, we’ve thrown in the towel too soon. We should be using diplomacy to contain the crisis, not walk away from it.
The clock hasn’t run out yet. While Netanyahu has been characterized in the Israeli press as advocating a military strike before the U.S. election, he faces tough domestic and foreign opposition to a unilateral attack. President Barack Obama has wisely urged restraint. And senior Israeli politicians and military commanders are opposed, as is a majority of the public.
But the window for a deal between Iran and a worried world is closing fast. Increasingly, Iran is diplomatically isolated, hobbled by sanctions and under threat. Iran’s leaders tell the United Nations that their nuclear program is for civilian power and medical research. If so, they should “stop the clock” on uranium enrichment, cap it at levels below weapons-grade fuel, agree to keep only a small stockpile, and accept rigorous inspection. That is no more than Canada and other nuclear-capable nations have done.