Harper takes cautious tone over Israeli stance on Iran

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says Canada wants to see a "peaceful resolution" to Iran's nuclear development, not military action, but his Israeli counterpart tells the same Ottawa news conference "all options" should be on the table.

Israel's Netanyahu warns against 'trap' of talks; wants all options on table

Canada wants a "peaceful resolution" to prevent further development of Iran's nuclear program, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday during a news conference in Ottawa with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Harper's counterpart, however, said "all options" to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons should be on the table.

Instability in the Middle East, including the situation in Syria, topped the agenda when the two leaders began meeting on Parliament Hill on Friday morning.

Netanyahu said at the joint news conference that there is a "sea of troubles" in his region but most disturbing among them is the "relentless Iranian pursuit of arming themselves with nuclear weapons."

Netanyahu's government has recently been suggesting that Israel is considering launching a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

"I think there is agreement right now on the main powers that Iran should not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons and that all options should be left on the table in order to assure that that doesn't happen," he said.

Harper was asked whether Canada would support a pre-emptive strike on Iran, and he said the country's intentions and capabilities remain "a serious concern" to Canada.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, right, walks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Parliament Hill Friday. The two leaders were discussing growing tensions with Iran over its nuclear program. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"In terms of hypothetical situations, I think, as the prime minister is aware, Canada's position is very clear," Harper said. "We of course recognize the right of Israel to defend itself as a sovereign state, as a Jewish state. That said, we want to see a peaceful resolution of this issue and we want to see every action taken to get a peaceful resolution of the situation."

Netanyahu said everyone wants to see a peaceful resolution, but he expressed doubt that renewed talks with Iran are the way to stop its nuclear development.

He and Harper discussed that idea, and Netanyahu said he believes Iran would exploit talks in order to "deceive and delay so that they can continue to advance their nuclear program and get to the nuclear finish line by running out the clock so to speak."

"I think the international community should not fall into this trap," he said. Netanyahu said the international community should demand that Iran dismantle an underground nuclear facility, that it stop enriching uranium and that all enriched uranium be shipped out of the country.

Iran defends its response in response to Netanyahu

The Iranian Embassy in Canada responded to the demands Friday by saying Netanyahu is not in a position to tell Iran what to do.

Aram Noori, a spokeswoman for the ambassador, said Iran has "every right to have a nuclear program for peaceful purposes" and it is Israel that should allow its facilities to be inspected.

"We believe this warmongering rhetoric is deplorable and counterproductive," she said in an email. "Nuclear weapons, as stated repeatedly, have no place in our defence doctrine, as well as it is forbidden according to our faith."

She added that Iran is a "peaceful country" that has been invaded by other countries. 

 Harper said Canada will keep working with the international community to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program, to allow international inspectors inside the country and to comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions.

"And of course, we will continue to uphold Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state in peace and security," he said. "Canada will continue to do our part to help achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the region."

The two leaders had a brief meeting after Netanyahu arrived on Parliament Hill, greeted by a military honour guard, and they continued their talks over a working lunch. Later Friday, Netanyahu was scheduled to meet with Gov. Gen. David Johnston.

During a photo opportunity earlier in the day, Netanyahu said he wanted to talk to Harper about the "remarkable turbulence that is shaking the Middle East" and about Iran's "relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons."

"I know from many conversations that we've had that you share my view that this is a grave threat to the peace and security of the world and I think it is important that the international community not allow this threat to materialize," Netanyahu said to Harper as they posed for photos in Harper's office. "As for Israel, like any sovereign country, we reserve the right to defend ourselves against a country that calls and works for our destruction."

"On that note, I can say that it is particularly gratifying to be among such good friends here in Ottawa on a cold day with warm friendship."

Netanyahu is travelling to Washington after his visit in Ottawa. He and U.S. President Barack Obama will both deliver speeches at a policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and will have a bilateral meeting on Monday.

Michael Bell, Canada's former ambassador to Israel, told CBC News that Netanyahu's reception in Washington may not be as warm as the one in Ottawa.

"It's interesting that he's coming here first. He's going to get a big boost in terms of support, visible support on the part of Prime Minister Harper, and then he's going to go into Washington to, I would say, face much more difficult encounters with President Obama," said Bell. "I think this gives him a lift, it's a morale booster."

Bell said he thinks the Obama administration is opposed to a military strike but he notes that this is an election year and the president's positions will be exploited by his Republican rivals.

"Mr. Obama has to be concerned that he's not outflanked on this so he has to appear to meet some of Israel's concerns while resisting any attempt to act now," said Bell.

Harper has been strong in backing Israel's view of Iran's program, saying he has "no doubt" that Iran is lying when it says it is pursuing nuclear power for peaceful purposes and is not building a nuclear bomb.

In an exclusive interview with CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge in January, Harper said the Iranian regime frightens him.

"In my judgment, these are people who have a particular, you know, a fanatically religious worldview, and their statements imply to me no hesitation about using nuclear weapons if they see them achieving their religious or political purposes. And … I think that’s what makes this regime in Iran particularly dangerous."

"We obviously don't want to see any military action"

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said Friday that the meeting between Harper and Netanyahu comes at an important time.

Rae said Canadians want Canada to be "an important source of advice and expertise on peace and mediation as well as on the security of Israel."

He said steps taken with Iran should be taken multilaterally.

"None of us want to see a nuclear-armed Iran," Rae said at a news conference on Parliament Hill. "None of us want to see an increase in tensions and conflict in the Middle East. But I think it's very important that we look at this not simply as an issue between Israel and Iran, but understand it is an issue that has much broader implications for the whole world."

Rae asked Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in question period Friday to explain Canada's position when it comes to Israel's view that military action in Iran could be an option.

"We obviously don't want to see any military action," Baird responded. "That's why we're working hard with the United States, with the European Union, with the United Kingdom and others to take every single diplomatic effort necessary to try and ensure that Iran doesn't achieve nuclear weapon status.

"We are working hard to ensure that we address their abysmal human rights record and to address their support for international terrorism. We believe right now the best course to take is every single diplomatic action and that's exactly what Canada is doing."


Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multiplatform reporter with CBC News in Toronto. She joined the CBC in 2011 and previously worked in the Parliament Hill and Washington bureaus. She has also reported for the CBC from Hong Kong. Meagan started her career as a print reporter in Ottawa.