Irwin Cotler: Iran Represents a Critical Mass of Threat

A Q&A with Irwin Cotler on Canada’s policy towards Iran.

By: /
4 April, 2012
Irwin Cotler

Chair, Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights

This week, OpenCanada asked six experts on the Middle East about Canada’s current policy towards Iran.Below is a Q&A with Professor Irwin Cotler, a Liberal MP, who led a petition last year calling on the U.S., the U.N., the E.U., and the International Court of Justice to impose sanctions on Iran. To read the other responses, click here.

Do you agree with the current Canadian government’s policy on Iran?

I agree with a policy that, in my view, is shared between the present government, the United States, the European Union, and beyond. This is a position that I’ve taken for some time, and I even prodded the Canadian government into viewing the situation in this way.

What exactly is that position?

Iran has emerged as a clear and present danger to international peace and security, to regional Middle East stability, and, increasingly and alarmingly so, to its own citizens. What we’re noticing in Ahmadinejad’s Iran (I use that term to distinguish it from the people and publics of Iran who are otherwise the targets of massive domestic repression) is a toxic convergence of four distinct threats:

  1. The nuclear threat.

  2. The threat of state-sanctioned incitement to hate and genocide.

  3. The threat of state sponsorship of international terrorism.

  4. The threat of massive domestic repression.

There should be no mistake about it: Iran is already in standing violation of international legal prohibitions respecting the nuclear-weaponization program. Iran has already committed the crime of incitement to genocide prohibited under the Genocide Convention. Iran has already perpetrated or sponsored crimes in violation of international law. Iran is engaged in a persistent and pervasive assault on the human rights of the Iranian people. The recent parliamentary elections in Iran made a mockery of the notion of free and fair elections inasmuch as the Iranian regime effectively silenced and imprisoned opposition voices.

Simply put, if there’s a critical mass of threat, then you need a critical mass of remedy.

Is there any way in which your position differs from the government’s position?

My critique of the Canadian government, and also of other governments, would be that while focusing (understandably) on the nuclear threat, they may have marginalized, or paid insufficient attention to, the massive domestic repression. While it is important, we can’t only focus on the nuclear threat, lest we sanitize or marginalize the human-rights violations.

You’ve made a compelling case for the threat of massive domestic repression in Iran. What about the nuclear threat – how serious is it?

On Feb. 4 of this year, the Iranian government made its most unequivocal statement yet in openly calling for the destruction of Israel and characterizing Israel as a cancerous tumour that must be excised, and will be excised, from the Middle East. It issued, at the time, a rather extensive or comprehensive theological justification for that. It also said, in an additional statement, that if it is provoked, it will reply and Israel will be annihilated in between nine and 12 minutes.

Do you think Canada’s current relationship with Israel is different than in the past?

I think that our present government has been more open and public about its relationship with, and support for, Israel. I don’t know if the basic principles are all that different. I recall that when we were in government, we enunciated seven basic principles of Canadian foreign policy with respect to Israel and the Middle East – that we support two states for two people, that we support the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, that we eschew terrorism, that we combat any state-sanctioned incitement, that we believe states must enjoy equality before the law, and that no state should be singled out for differential and discriminatory treatment.

How is the present government more open and public about its relationship with Israel?

I think the Canadian position is part of a narrative that has emerged more generally. Governments in the United States, Australia, and Germany have made their relationships with Israel much more public in terms of their unequivocal commitment to Israel’s security and legitimacy. I think some of it has been prompted by the emergence, which was not as evident when our government was in place, of the Iranian fourfold threat as a threat to international peace and security and regional Middle East stability. Some of it has also been a result of the Arab Awakening and the fallout from that.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 

Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter

Also in the series

Rebuilding Brazilian Foreign Policy From Scratch

Rebuilding Brazilian Foreign Policy From Scratch


The world today is very different from what Lula found when he last inhabited the presidential palace. Important allies now find themself on opposite sides in a confrontational international environment

Germans want their government to do more for Ukraine

Germans want their government to do more for Ukraine


Ordinary Germans are taking a harder line on Russia than at any point in the country’s post-war history.

Omar Alghabra: Harper’s Approach Lacks Nuance

Omar Alghabra: Harper’s Approach Lacks Nuance


Part of the OpenCanada series Stephen Harper’s Persian Problem.

Stockwell Day: We Must Defend Israel’s Right To Defend Itself

Stockwell Day: We Must Defend Israel’s Right To Defend Itself


A Q&A with Stockwell Day on Canada’s policy towards Iran.

Stephen Harper’s Worrying Words on Iran

Stephen Harper’s Worrying Words on Iran


The Prime Minister should tone down his rhetoric on Iran, argues Roland Paris