Canada's Hub for International Affairs

Stephen Harper’s Worrying Words on Iran

| January 21, 2012
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses the audience during a conference at the University of Havana

Is Prime Minister Stephen Harper preparing the Canadian public for a possible conflict with Iran? In two recent interviews (here and here), he has “raised the alarm” about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, which he views as the “world’s most serious threat to international peace.”

Harper is right to be concerned about the possibility of Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons. Any proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is bad news, and there are few more odious regimes in the world than the one that has ruled Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

But is he justified in saying that Iran would have “no hesitation of using nuclear weapons if they see them achieving their religious or political purposes”?

This is an important point. If Harper is correct, virtually all measures, up to and including a military attack on Iran, might be warranted, or perhaps even required, to prevent that country from building such weapons.

The problem, however, is that the prime minister’s assessment flies in the face of what we know about the behaviour of the Iranian regime. For all their revolutionary jihadist talk, Iran’s ruling mullahs have consistently worked to realize one goal above all others: keeping themselves in power.

There are 4 uses for nukes. Which one motivates Iran?

Yes, Iran’s leaders have made the most repugnant and threatening statements about Israel, and it’s an open secret that they support organizations that use terrorist tactics, including Hezbollah and Hamas. But the regime shows no sign of being suicidal itself, which is what Harper is suggesting when he says the country’s leaders would “not hesitate” to use nuclear weapons. Most experts who watch Iran reject the assumption that its leaders would bring about their own certain destruction in this manner.

On the other hand, this is not a reason to be complacent about the Iranian nuclear program. It is genuinely worrying that Iran seems bent on developing such weapons, or at least the capability to build them. Although the International Atomic Energy Agency still lacks definitive evidence of a nuclear weapons program, there is more than enough circumstantial evidence to warrant the aggressive diplomatic and economic squeeze that Canada and other western countries are putting on Iran – provided it is also combined with creative diplomacy that gives Iran a way out, should it choose to take it.

The question, however, is how far we might be willing to go in stopping such a program, if and when hard evidence emerges that Iran is close to building a functioning, deliverable nuclear device. If misperceptions about Iranian behaviour inform our answer to this question – if we succumb to fears based on caricatures, rather than facts – we risk making terrible strategic mistakes.

Some might say: How can we afford to wait much longer before considering preemptive military action to avert this looming threat? We’ve heard versions of this argument from candidates for the Republican presidential nomination and from some conservative American commentators, among others.

But exactly how would such an intervention work? Could bombing, alone, really stop – or even significantly delay – Iran’s nuclear efforts? Would a limited attack not serve to strengthen the Iranian leadership’s domestic power? Might it not also reinforce the regime’s commitment to acquire nuclear weapons as a deterrent against future attacks? What if outside intervention inflamed the entire region? What if it bogged down into another grinding war of occupation?

Let’s also recall that former U.S. president George W. Bush, in responding to concerns about the case for attacking Iraq, used some of the same arguments we are hearing today. “Facing clear evidence of peril,” he said in 2002, just months before the U.S. invaded Iraq, “we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” Unfortunately, this frightful yet unfounded message, which went largely unchallenged by some of the country’s most respected media organizations, resonated with a great many Americans.

It should go without saying that political leaders need to be very cautious when they invoke nightmare visions of nuclear catastrophe. Few rhetorical tools are more powerful, or have more potential to mobilize public passions, than allusions to possible mass destruction. That’s why we need to subject these claims to extra-close scrutiny.

Harper acknowledges that he is frightened by Iran. So am I – and so are many others. But at this critical time, as tensions mount between Iran and the West, our prime minister needs to keep a level head. He should step back from the rhetorical brink.

Photo courtesy Reuters.

  • Jack Harper

    Harper has a “mental disease” brought on by Zionism.
    I think Iran should be given nukes.
    that way a balance of power will take shape in the Middle East.

    • Davidculham

      What a sick puppy Jack Harper! When asked a direct question PM Harper answered honestly. You have to be naive as possible to think otherwise.Vlad states it well above.Accusations of Zionest power are not only greatly exaggerated but very dumb.

      • Jack Harper

        You may own your opinion.
        But, you do not own the facts.
        And the facts are on paper, agreed to by all, there is no threat from Iran unless someone threatens them first.

  • Vlad Tepesblog

    Yes I agree 200%. History shows us that we should never take a leader at their word when they threaten genocide or war with a neighbor for ideological reasons. Hitler certainly never did. I mean, he wrote Mien Kampf and all, but he never actually meant to attack anyone or kill all the Jews and he certainly didn’t ally himself with the grand Mufti of Jerusalem when he didn’t do it. Same goes for Kim Jong Il, Stalin, Mao, none of these guys actually did what they said they would do. We, the leftist armchair geopolitical analysts know better than they about what they really think, want and will do. I mean after all, everyone else is exactly like us right? No one is really different that’s why we always trumpet how much we like diversity. Cause we have no actual concept that anyone can actually think differently that we do, or, that they perceive their interests in a different way than we do.

    The fact that these nations, Iran included, spent a huge fraction of their national treasure, impoverishing thier own people to build massive and unnecessary weapons systems should not make us think for a moment that Iran actually means to use them!

  • Martin King

    Iran is not building a bomb, they are a threat to no one, Harper bends over for Israel.
    This just Colin Powell at the UN with Iraq, now he is dead in the water for LYING.
    US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Admits Iran Not Making Nuclear Weapons.

    • Anonymous

      Moron; you say Iran is not a threat; then in the next breath you say Harper bends over for Israel.

      Which is it?

      Don’t know?

      You really are a moron Martin!

  • Roberto Duhamel

    The U.S. and Israel will make the decision on whether or not to attack Iran. All the rest of the world can hope for is that they base their decision on real evidence rather than politics, expedience or fanaticism. Recent history is not comforting in this regard. As for Canada, with Harper running the show there can be no doubt that we will be in lock step with the U.S. and Israel, regardless of what they decide and why.

    Should they decide to attack, there is also no doubt that justifications for doing so will be carefully tested with focus groups until the best approach is found, after which a full court press of propaganda will convince a majority of citizens that attacking is the only course of action. The reason will be compelling, and voicing dissent will bring immediate howls of being unpatriotic, in bed with the enemy, anti-freedom, etc.

    These tactics have been used and refined for decades. They have worked before and they will work now.

    • Vlad Tepesblog

      Ya mean, like we did in Libya?

    • Guest

      Yeah, Canada will be in lock step, especially when the facts are that it was the Liberals who got us into the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fortunately, Harper drew a line in the sand and withdrew our troops in 2011. Ergo, we have nothing to worry about being in bed with the American military without the Liberals in power. We have thankfully shown our national independence on the energy front as well by moving on from the Americans.

      • Roberto Duhamel

        Wow. Afghanistan was a NATO mission. Harper argued for Canada to join the Iraq war but the Liberals said no. Things aren’t so just because you want them to be. You need to study up on the meaning of the word “fact”.

        • Guest

          Yes, Roberto, it was a Nato mission. We all know that. The Liberals endorsed this mission to go to war. That is the point – not the evil conservatives. How naive to believe if it is a “NATO” mission that the war time objectives must be justified then. The Liberals did the bidding of the US government who had ulterior motives in the Afghan war under George Bush. As far as the Iraq war – is the CBC a good enough source for you to prove that the Liberals LIED to the Canadian people by “saying” no but in FACT did use our military-they lied for political purposes? Would you rather have the truth or a lie but with the same outcome? You seem obsessed with hating other points of view than your own that you cannot be objective and see your Liberal party are not what they say they are. Again, the Liberals led us to war in Afghanistan and in Iraq ergo, we have no evidence to support that conservative have lead us into war. From the CBC:

          The same day Canada publicly refused to join the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a high-ranking Canadian official was secretly promising the Americans clandestine military support for the fiercely controversial operation.

          The revelation that Canadian forces may have secretly participated in the invasion of Iraq is contained in a classified U.S. diplomatic memo obtained exclusively by CBC News from the whistleblower website WikiLeaks.

          On March 17, 2003, two days before U.S. warplanes launched their attack on Baghdad, prime minister Jean Chrétien told the House of Commons that Canadian forces would not be joining what the administration of then U.S. president George W. Bush dubbed the “coalition of the willing.”

          Chrétien’s apparent refusal to back the Bush administration’s invasion, purportedly launched to seize weapons of mass destruction possessed by Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein (which were never found), was hugely popular in Canada, widely hailed as nothing less than a defining moment of national sovereignty.

          Greg Weston

          But even as Chrétien told the Commons that Canada wouldn’t participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Canadian diplomats were secretly telling their U.S. counterparts something entirely different.

          The classified U.S. document obtained from WikiLeaks shows senior Canadian officials met that same day with high-ranking American and British diplomats at Foreign Affairs headquarters in Ottawa.

          The confidential note, written by a U.S. diplomat at the gathering, states that Foreign Affairs official James Wright waited until after the official meeting to impart the most important news of all.

          According to the U.S. account, Wright “emphasized” that contrary to public statements by the prime minister, Canadian naval and air forces could be “discreetly” put to use during the pending U.S.-led assault on Iraq and its aftermath.

          At that time, Canada had warships, aircraft and over 1,200 naval personnel already in the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, intercepting potential militant vessels and providing safe escort to other ships as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the post-Sept. 11, 2001, multinational war on terrorism.

          ‘While for domestic political reasons… [Canada] has decided not to join in a U.S. coalition,… they are also prepared to be as helpful as possible in the military margins’ —Secret U.S. diplomatic cable

          The U.S. briefing note states: “Following the meeting, political director Jim Wright emphasized that, despite public statements that the Canadian assets in the Straits of Hormuz will remain in the region exclusively to support Enduring Freedom, they will also be available to provide escort services in the Straits and will otherwise be discreetly useful to the military effort.

          “The two ships in the Straits now are being augmented by two more en route, and there are patrol and supply aircraft in the U.A.E. [United Arab Emirates] which are also prepared to ‘be useful.’

          “This message tracks with others we have heard,” the U.S. diplomat wrote in his briefing note to State Department bosses in Washington.

          “While for domestic political reasons… the GOC [Government of Canada] has decided not to join in a U.S. coalition of the willing,… they are also prepared to be as helpful as possible in the military margins.”

          ‘Please destroy cable’

          The original U.S. briefing cable, dated the day of the meeting, was marked “unclassified.” Two days later, the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa issued an urgent internal notice to “please destroy previous cable,” replacing it with the same message but marked “confidential.”

          The Canadian official involved, James Wright, is now Canada’s high commissioner in London. He declined to comment for this report.

          The U.S. ambassador to Canada at the time, Paul Cellucci, says he couldn’t be at the meeting in Ottawa that day — he was stranded in a snowstorm in the U.S. — but the version of events in the leaked memo “sounds right.”

          “The message from the Canadians was pretty clear,” Cellucci told CBC News. “We are not putting boots on the ground in Iraq. We will say good things about the United States and not-so-good things about Saddam Hussein.”

          And finally: “We will keep our ships in the Persian Gulf helping in the war on terror — and any way else we can help.”

          Exactly what that meant for the Canadian naval ships and surveillance aircraft in the Gulf region at the time — and how much they ultimately became involved in the Iraq war — remains a matter of considerable debate.

          Before the invasion of Iraq, the duties of the Canadian ships had been mainly to protect other vessels from attacks by militants and to intercept craft suspected of gun-running and other potentially militant-related activities.

          The issue is what, if anything, changed after the Chrétien government decreed those ships and aircraft couldn’t be involved in intercepting vessels connected to the Iraq war.
          Three months before the Iraq invasion, the then Canadian defence minister John McCallum, right, met with U.S. counterpart Donald Rumsfeld, left, whose diplomats had told him to keep his expectations ‘modest’ for what Canada might contribute to the war. (CBC)
          Eugene Lang, chief of staff to then defence minister John McCallum, says there was no end of internal debate over whether the Canadian Forces were being put into a mission impossible.

          “How do you know if something is connected to terrorism or Iraq? When you are intercepting unknown boats, you don’t know what you have taken over until you have taken it over.”

          Lang says that after “painful” consultations with federal lawyers, the Department of National Defence issued Canadian naval commanders in the Gulf clear orders not to engage in anything to do with Operation Iraqi Freedom.

          “But who knows whether in fact we were doing things indirectly for Iraqi Freedom? It is quite possible.”

          McCallum’s former chief recalled a bitter internal battle over whether to pull the Canadian ships out of the Gulf altogether to avoid any confusion.

          “For a long time, the [Canadian] military pushed really hard not to be in Afghanistan, and instead be part of a full-blown boots-on-the-ground Iraq invasion,” Lang said.

          “So the military was dead set against pulling out [of the Gulf], and in the end the government decided we would stay mainly, I think, for Canada-U.S. relations.”

          Former defence minister McCallum recalls he and his officials having “extremely long and detailed meetings to make sure that we were not in fact committing to help the war in Iraq.”

          “Now, what happens on the high seas is not something I can prove or disprove, but those were the orders that the military had.”

          U.S. didn’t seem to care

          Ironically, after all the fuss, the Americans didn’t seem to care whether Canada contributed a lot of military might to the Iraq mission.

          A former senior Canadian bureaucrat said: “The Americans knew we were stretched to the limit on the military side, and they really just wanted a political endorsement of their plan to go into Iraq.”

          Former U.S. ambassador Cellucci concurred: “We were looking for moral support. That’s all we were looking for.… We were looking for ‘we support the Americans.’ ”
          Flight deck crew watch as a U.S. F/A-18 Hornet launches from an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf one week into the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Canada had two warships nearby at the time, and secretly offered to make them ‘useful’ to the U.S., a leaked American document says. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)
          Then defence minister McCallum met with his counterpart, U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, three months before the Iraq invasion. McCallum recalls Rumsfeld never even mentioned Canada’s possible military contribution to Iraq.

          A U.S. diplomatic briefing note prepared for Rumsfeld prior to the meeting states: “As for what Canada might bring to the table, our expectations should be modest.”

          The memo, also obtained by CBC News from WikiLeaks, goes on to say: “Canada probably would need to use assets currently devoted to Operation Enduring Freedom, including a naval task group [in the Gulf] and patrol and transport aircraft.”

          If the secret U.S. memos cast doubts on Canada’s status as a refusenik of the Iraq war, the public also didn’t exactly get the whole truth about a group of Canadian soldiers the government admitted were in Iraq.

          From the outset, the Chrétien government said a “few” Canadian soldiers embedded with the U.S. and British militaries as exchange officers would be allowed to remain in their positions, even if they wound up in Iraq.

          While the revelation caused a ruckus in Parliament, it all sounded relatively innocuous at the time.

          But Lang, defence minister McCallum’s chief of staff, says military brass were not entirely forthcoming on the issue. For instance, he says, even McCallum initially didn’t know those soldiers were helping to plan the invasion of Iraq up to the highest levels of command, including a Canadian general.

          That general is Walt Natynczyk, now Canada’s chief of defence staff, who eight months after the invasion became deputy commander of 35,000 U.S. soldiers and other allied forces in Iraq. Lang says Natynczyk was also part of the team of mainly senior U.S. military brass that helped prepare for the invasion from a mobile command in Kuwait.

          • Guest

            tldr; ctrl-c ctrl-v

            Harper is still a douche

          • Roberto Duhamel

            “Guest”, your blindly ideological position is painfully obvious. You wrote:

            “You seem obsessed with hating other points of view than your own that you cannot be objective and see your Liberal party are not what they say they are.”

            My Liberal party? Hating other points of view? You made all that up. Which “point of view” do I hate? What gives you the impression that the Liberals are “my” party?

            You have invented an entire persona for me based on one statement – “…with Harper running the show there can be no doubt that we will be in lock step with the U.S. and Israel…”. This statement is based on the FACT that Harper was completely against Canada not joining Bush’s coalition of the willing. Harper wanted Canada to be part of the coalition. The statement is also based on the FACT that Harper has been unreservedly and outspokenly pro-Israel since the moment he took power. He has changed course on Canada’s longstanding role as a balanced voice in the region and become Israel’s loudest cheerleader.

            You bizarrely stated – “Fortunately, Harper drew a line in the sand and withdrew our troops in 2011.” Your implication is that Liberals got us into the war, and Harper got us out. Does the phrase “Canada doesn’t cut and run.” ring any bells? Are you honestly saying that Harper wasn’t pro Afghanistan war effort? Are you freakin’ kidding? There’s five years worth of evidence to the contrary.

            As for your contention That Canada was at war with Iraq, we were not. We didn’t join the coalition. Bush wanted our endorsement but we didn’t give it to him because his justifications were suspect. The fact that we had military personnel embedded and ships already there for other purposes does not change the fact that we said no to joining the coalition. Bush didn’t need our military assistance – what he wanted was our endorsement because it would add legitimacy to his cause. Our government withheld that endorsement – on principle and despite what was no doubt intense pressure. Pulling out previously embedded troops and previously engaged ships would have been an egregious insult to the Americans.

            You clearly have built a impressive ideological screen to filter events into agreeing with your worldview. The fact that it is so easy to poke holes in will not register with you, but it’s still worth doing in case anyone should stumble upon your post and think it might have even a bit of merit.

        • Jack Harper

          I recall Chretian saying; “there is no proof of their proof”.
          Same thing with Iran.
          There is no proof of any allegations.
          If Harper brought the issue before the Court of Queens Bench it would not get past square 1.

    • Anonymous

      Of course you have the real answer, don’t you Roberto?

      I’d rather be on the side of a democratic western alliance, than in bed with the religious terrorists in Iran.

  • TBC

    “…as tensions mount between Iran and the west, our prime minister needs to keep a level head. He should step back from the rhetorical brink.”

    — Is the author suggesting a Neville Chamberlain approach??

  • Anonymous

    Obama said, he was cutting the U.S. military way back. He said, Canada has to pick up the slack. WHAT!!!

    There are also tensions, between the U.S. and China. The U.S. has sanctions on Iran. Russia is saying, it would be a bad mistake to attack Iran. I don’t remember Iran threatening Canada, I could have missed that though.

    All of this could get really ugly. If Harper attacks Iran and other country’s retaliate, Canada is one hell of a vast country to defend. And boy, does Canada ever have thousands of wonderful targets. Terrorists did threaten Canada, because of Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Luis Moreno-Ocampo, is investigating Harper for war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Harper did hire a consultant.

    Harper is a loose cannon, he could get this country into a hell of a mess. Canada is already in a mess, there have been no jobs in Canada, for six months now. Wars cost billions and Harper says he doesn’t have billions. Harper is slashing services we pay through the nose for. Harper wastes our tax dollars. He gives the wealthiest corporations in the world, billions of our tax dollars. He just gave them, ANOTHER tax reduction. The giant oil and gas corporations of course, thrive on wars…The more the better.

    Canadians prefer Canada’s role as, a peacekeeping Nation. Harper has destroyed Canada’s good name, among the other country’s around the world.

  • Guest

    The Harper’s governmnet is absolutely terrible at foreign relations (losing UN Security Council seat and the rejection of Keystone pipeline most recently) and this is just another example to drive the point home. Rather than engaging in dialogue with various sources and most importantly, Canadian-Iranians who have the appropriate knowledge and skills to assess the situation, he rather use childish language such as “frightened.” This in no way is to say that there isn’t something to be alarmed about with the Iranian regime or their ambitions, but there needs to be some wisdom in the assessments made and the language used to portray those assessments, particularly on the part of the Canadian government. Let’s not give the Iranian regime more rhetoric to flaunt around in the country in order to justify their activities and wrong doings.

  • Socrates

    Harper is trying to be a big boy. No, you are not. Israel and the US are the big boys and real enemies of any peace process. Look at the Palestinians, their land is stolen on a daily basis and nobody says anything, like nothing happens. Muslims and Israelis are fanatics and they will never learn to live in peace, they just don’t want to.

  • Jack Harper

    Syria will take care of Israel in the next go around.
    They will not need help from Iran or Egypt.
    Not this time.

  • George Jacoby

    Iran does not really consitute as much of a “nuclear” threat as a thorn in the side of those with nuclear weapons in the region maintaining regional security hegemonony and a reminder and resistance to the failure to achieve a just and lasting two state Israel and Palestine solution in the Middle East which the Iranians would have to accept like anyone else. Diplomacy and negotiation through multilateral means including the NPT (of which Iran remains a member) rather than extreme sanctions and military action should be used to resolve the problem and to create the conditions for peace and security in the region including a ME nuclear free zone. Mr. Harper’s rhetoric shows that he has opted for the flawed and potentially diastrous path of war and conflict in preference to Canada’s traditonal peace making and mediation approach in approaching Middle East peace and security and human rights for all in the region. Lets hope that Canadian policy can get back on track!

    George Jacoby
    CIC Member
    Ottawa Branch

  • Jack Harper

    Afghanistan is simply known as the graveyard for Empires and anyone else who tries to take over these people and their land.
    Alexander the Great is buried there along with countless others including the former USSR.
    You can expect same thing next door.
    In Persia.

  • Michaelpeel

    sometimes there ARE ghosts in the closet. carry a big stick but be be prepared to clean up the mess.

  • guest.

    I never before my eyes ever witnessed a Prime Minister to come out on air and say this “in my lifetime”.