Last week, the Government of Canada announced that it would immediately close its Embassy in Tehran, and declared personae non gratae all remaining Iranian diplomats in Canada. In his announcement, the Canadian Foreign Minister lambasted the regime in Iran, listing that country as a state sponsor of terrorism, and naming its government, “the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today.” Canada’s announcement strikes another diplomatic blow to the Islamic Republic, but Ottawa’s strategy is short-sighted at best, and at worst, will more likely prove counterproductive to Canadian and global long term security interests.
The announcement from Ottawa continues a pattern of behavior on the part of the Conservative Government that seeks to liberate Canadian foreign policy from what it calls the grip of “moral relativism.” In the words of Foreign Minister Baird, the Canadian Government will no longer “go along to get along.” As a basis for Ottawa’s decision vis-à-vis Iran, Baird cited Iranian military assistance to the Assad regime, its anti-Semitic rhetoric, human rights violations, and support of international terrorism. Yet the fact that Iran is far from alone in perpetrating such egregious transgressions in our world today suggests that the overwhelming rationale for the current diplomatic stand-off revolves around Tehran’s refusal to comply with UN resolutions pertaining to its nuclear program.
Proponents of this strategy of diplomatic isolation point to the Obama administration’s early attempts to offer more carrots than sticks to the Iranian regime in exchange for a renunciation of nuclear enrichment, even as Tehran accelerated its suspicious activities in contravention of UN resolutions. Likewise, advocates say, previous efforts by the Clinton administration to placate the North Korean regime led to a maturation of that country’s weapons program, ultimately facilitating their withdrawal from the global nonproliferation regime and a full-fledged nuclear test in 2006.
But those that conclude on this basis that strategic isolation is, therefore, the only option for enforcing a nonproliferation agenda are drawing the wrong lessons from history. As the United States is coming to understand, persuading Iran to negotiate limitations on its nuclear program, much less renounce its suspicious activities altogether, is unlikely to be achieved by defining the nuclear issue as the sum total of the bilateral relationship. Since the United States terminated diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic in 1979, Washington has relied upon its friends and allies around the world to communicate with the regime, even as tensions have grown to unprecedented and dangerous new heights today. If thirty years of American experience with Tehran teach us anything, it is that terminating government-to-government relations compounds our lack of understanding (and intelligence) with Iran, itself stunted by longstanding prohibitions on private-sector interactions. This lack of mutual knowledge in both public and private circles reinforces misunderstanding and suspicion, and contributes to a vicious cycle of accusation and recrimination that frustrates our ultimate objectives-a peaceful, prosperous, and nuclear-free Iran. In the end, Ottawa’s decision is more likely to reinforce the mutual mistrust between Iran and the rest of the world, enhance the opportunity for miscalculation leading to military conflict, and prove counterproductive to the objectives of Canadian foreign policy.
A more well-tailored strategy for Canada is to build upon its strategic strengths and interests. Rather than following the US line in defining the relationship around a single issue, Canada can help reduce the prominence of the nuclear issue in Iran’s relationship with the world by working with Iran to build trust and cooperation in areas of mutual interest: countering the global drug trade, enhancing maritime security, or cooperation in the health sciences. By broadening the discussion and mutually beneficial engagement with the West, critical constituencies across the country will have the opportunity to identify with foreign allies, witness the broader benefits of productive engagement with the rest of the world, and ultimately help till fertile ground for more fruitful engagement on the nuclear issue. At one time, the uniqueness of being Canadian allowed that country to make meaningfully unique contributions to global security-and did so in ways that the United States could only dream. Sadly, that era seems to have passed as Ottawa’s foreign policy sinks deeper into irrelevance.
Throughout its history, Canada’s authority in the world has never been founded on the force of bilateral political relations. Canada is a great country, but it is not a Great Power. Instead, its ability to influence global events has depended upon its moral authority built upon the wise leveraging of the diplomatic, cultural, scientific, and economic instruments of statecraft. In the grand scheme of today’s Iranian standoff, Ottawa’s decision to suspend diplomatic relations is irrelevant-a single day news cycle replaced by a newsflash from the Toronto International Film Festival or Canada’s victories in the Paralympic Games in London. But what is worse is that Canada has squandered its potential role in contributing to the resolution of the current standoff by playing the cards it wishes it had, rather than the cards it was dealt.
Photo Credit: iStockphoto. Iranian Embassy on Metcalfe Street in Ottawa, the capital of Canada.