Canada's wrong-headed position on Iran

Alone among its key Western allies, Canada is not only refusing to support the Iran nuclear deal but has also vowed not to have any diplomatic truck with the regime in Tehran. If we had done that 30 years ago with the Soviets, we'd still be in the Cold War, Brian Stewart writes.

Why won't John Baird do as Ronald Reagan did in the Cold War: Trust but verify?

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird at the UN in September. 'Deeply skeptical' about Iran's intentions. (Seth WenigAssociated Press)

As a Europe correspondent in the 1980s I spent considerable time covering NATO manoeuvres and talking to officers about their plans to defend, at all cost, an area called the Fulda Gap.

That's a stretch of flat German lowlands through which Soviet tanks were expected to pour into Western Europe if the balloon ever went up. The East-West divide then was also awash in tactical nuclear arms and neither side trusted each other, with good reason.

So why bring this up now? Because there's lots of angry talk at the moment from critics of this weekend's interim nuclear deal with Iran.

Those opposed insist that only complete skepticism and distrust should be shown towards Iran — to the point, in Canada's case, of turning our backs and not even talking to the regime in Tehran.

Well, we should look back to a time when the West faced the brutal Soviet Union — the "evil empire" no less in Ronald Reagan handy catchphrase — and yet managed a long series of agreements with the Kremlin that eased decades of Cold War tension.

One of my main reporting memories of that era is that we also spent a lot of time covering arms talks between the big powers, despite the considerable fear and loathing on all sides.

Washington and Moscow always seemed to have some level of talks bubbling away, right up to the key summits, out of which arms control treaties eventually came.

Yes it was a long hard process and skepticism reigned. Yet through verification and hard diplomatic slogging, longtime enemies found they could build up mutual confidence.

 It may have saved the world; it certainly helped end the Cold War.

Benefit of the doubt

A good lesson for today? I was reminded of all those talks when the U.S., Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France (the so-called P5+1) struck the nuclear deal with Iran on the weekend, a deal that also followed months of top secret U.S.-Iran talks to try to end their own 34-year cold war.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) shakes hands with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Sunday in Geneva at the conclusion of the talks to curb Iran's nuclear abilities. (Associated Press)

It's not a perfect deal, but it will open Iran's nuclear facilities to international inspection, pull back and slow the enriching of near weapons-grade uranium, and essentially require Iran to adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it signed but has not followed.

It may also mark the historic start to theocratic Iran's opening to the outside world, something it is doing, let's face it, for its own economic and regional ambitions.

But in the real world you don't wait around to negotiate only with like-minded angelic types, you deal with what you've got.

In Barack Obama's case, he has wanted to reach out to Iran for years, and has encouraged moderate elements in Tehran's government to step up.

Predictably, many hard-liners in the U.S. Congress are furious with this interim deal and want to vote in new economic sanctions that could sabotage the agreement. Like Israel, they refuse to trust anything to do with Iran.

Just as predictably, Canada has taken the hardest line of any of our close allies, except Israel. We're not exactly against some talking, but everything about the deal seems to irritate Foreign Minister John Baird.

"We are deeply skeptical", he said on Sunday, "Simply put, Iran has not earned the right to have the benefit of the doubt."

Lecture and leave

So, even as other Western nations make plans to reduce their sanctions on Iran, we won't lift any of ours.

It seems we won't be for softening Iran's economic pain unless Tehran virtually abandons its entire bargaining position and gives up all of its centrifuges.

In other words we only give concessions if and when Iran gives us everything we want.

This is not negotiation, but diplomatic unconditional surrender.

Stephen Harper's government won't even hold bilateral talks with Iran, even though the U.K. and the U.S. have quietly started a dialogue with President Hassan Rouhani. (In an apparent test of goodwill, the U.S. yesterday asked for Iran's help in finding an American private investigator who went missing in Iran six years ago.)

The Canadian embassy in Tehran remains shuttered and vacant, and Iranian diplomats are persona non grata here. Our diplomacy towards the globe's 17th largest country and one of the most important powers in the Muslim world is locked away in deep freeze.

"We lecture and leave," Joe Clark, the former Conservative prime minister and long-serving foreign minister wrote recently in a blistering critique of Harper-Baird diplomacy.

Sure, Baird understandingly feels outrage towards Iran's policies and human rights abuses, some involving Canadians.

Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian freelance photographer was arrested, tortured and killed in an Iranian jail in 2003, a case that captured world attention and strained diplomatic relations. Two Iranian security agents were charged over her death but subsequently acquitted. (Canadian Press)

But I wonder what he thinks it was like dealing with the Kremlin at the height of the Cold War; or negotiating directly with China's Mao Zedong, one of the bloodiest tyrants of the last century.

Had Western leaders, including U.S. presidents John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan taken the same self-righteous attitude that Canada does, the very talks that helped end the Cold War would never have happened.

Portraying Tehran as somehow less trustworthy than even the Kremlin or Beijing at the height of their Cold War powers is simply naïve and ignores history.

Trust but verify

Ronald Reagan, a conservative saint if there ever was one, favoured talks with America's toughest opponents on the theory that personal meetings would prompt two-way concessions, encourage moderate new leaders to come forward, and inevitably alter the international climate in a way that might lead to regime change.

The approach is almost identical to President Obama's strategy with Iran.

Reagan even learned one Russian proverb "Doveryai no proveryai" to use on Mikhail Gorbachev, and it became his signature phrase in English: "Trust but verify."

In Canada's case, we can fret and complain all we want about the need for skepticism, but who are we trying to convince here?

Everyone in these talks, indeed in all diplomacy, takes the need to verify as a given. The current U.S. delegation has even modified the Reagan vow to "Verify, and verify."

Canada, so experienced in weapons verification in the past, could have had much to offer in these attempts to ease Middle East tensions.

Instead, our government seems content to sit on the sidelines while others deal with the sometimes sordid but hopefully changeable reality of global politics today.


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?