Listen Now

Shimon Fogel: Canada’s Response is Proportional to the Magnitude of the Threat

By: /
3 April, 2012
By: Shimon Fogel
President of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs

This week, OpenCanada asked six experts on the Middle East about Canada’s current policy towards Iran.Below, Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA), comments on Canada’s close relationship with Israel.To read the other responses, click here.

How do you evaluate Canada’s approach to Iran?

The current government – and the broad consensus within the political sector – views Iran as problematic and a real challenge to regional security and international stability for four reasons:

  1. The human-rights record of Iran, internally. There is overwhelming evidence of a degree of repression that is exercised by the regime against various elements of the Iranian population – whether it’s with respect to the Bahai community, to the Jews, to other minority groups, or, indeed, to various segments of the general Iranian population.

  2. The role Iran has played with respect to sponsorship of terrorism. As a state sponsor of terrorist activity – in the region as well as internationally – Iran has no parallel.

  3. [The position that Iran holds relative] to the Jews, [as seen through President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s] genocide declarations and expressed intentions of the regime. While [Ahmadinejad] is the most frequent commentator on it, he’s not the only commentator from the regime [who has expressed such things]. The talks about annihilating Israel, getting rid of “the cancer,” burning Israel and the Jewish people to the ground, and so forth [are] in direct contravention to the very statutes of the UN with respect to genocide and genocidal statements.

  4. Iran’s absolutely determined effort to move towards the acquisition of nuclear weapons. That’s the one that seems to be getting the most focus right now, but it really only represents one of the four elements of the threat that Iran poses to the international community.

The Canadian response, I think, has been consistent and unequivocal: that Iran must remediate its approach in all four areas. That’s a position that was articulated by the government, [and] it’s one that is supported by opposition parties. Indeed, in some respects, the opposition has even called for more aggressive and stronger sanctions.

There’s no doubt that Canada has taken a leadership role within the international community and the international conversation with respect to the need to isolate Iran and compel its compliance with the will of the international community.

Why focus on Iran, when Canada only has so much power to wield on the international stage?

I think that it’s the magnitude of the threat that’s posed by Iran. But Canada hasn’t ignored other problematic regimes. Certainly, in the case of Libya, Canada was forefront in the effort to achieve regime change. [And] Canada has certainly been quite vocal and active with respect to the current situation in Syria. I don’t think Canada has been ignoring other hotspots in the world, but in terms of relative gravity of the threat, I don’t think there is any particular regional player that poses the same intensity or scope of potential instability [as] Iran.

Is Canada taking a tougher stance than the U.S.?

No. I actually don’t think so. There is [certainly] a different personal chemistry between [Canadian] Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu – it isn’t the same as the personal relationship that exists between [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama and Netanyahu. But that only relates to the personal dynamics. I think, in all cases, the leaders recognize the responsibilities to represent the best interests of their countries and the ways in which their countries contribute to enhance international security and stability.

That having been said, I think that one of the things all three agree on – certainly as conveyed by their public statements here in Ottawa, and subsequently in Washington – is that [they] would like to see what they call a diplomatic solution to the current impasse with Iran. That is to say, they endorse and believe in sanctions, they want to make them as comprehensive and seamless as possible, [and] they want to see buy-ins from as much of the international community as possible. (And that, of course, would relate to the Chinese dimension.) And none of them would like to contemplate the other alternatives that are on the table if sanctions don’t work.

There are very nuanced differences in terms of timelines and scheduling and so forth. But there is absolute unanimity with respect to containment of Iran not being sufficient. That was certainly the message that came out here in Ottawa, and I think that it was a message that was reaffirmed in Washington by both [Harper and Obama] when they met with media subsequent to their meetings. As a principle stakeholder in this particular equation, Israel is flagging that our time limits can be attached to allowing the efficacy and sanctions to take hold. And I don’t think that there was anybody that disputed that, either in Ottawa or Washington.

Is the Canadian Jewish community on Israel’s side?

The difference between those who have a direct role, like heads of government, and those who are on the relative sidelines in terms of being able to offer opinion without having to accept responsibility for the consequences, is not a trifling matter. I think that, to the extent that I can measure it, the consensus that has emerged within the Jewish community here, and more broadly within the pro-Israel community (because that extends much further than simply the 350-360,000 Jews that live in Canada), is that they desperately would like to see the multi-lateral effort using sanctions as an instrument to achieve the objectives with respect to Iran work. They very much would like to see this resolved in a positive way, without having to resort [to], or contemplate, the use of some military action. I think everybody appreciates that the consequences of that are serious and grave and will impact beyond the region.

So, is there consensus in the Canadian Jewish community?

I think that, for the most part, there’s a very broad consensus. What there’s greater anxiety about is the extent to which the international community appreciates the full threat that Iran represents. Again, [the threat is] not just to Israel – it’s to the region generally. And, indeed, [Iran’s] acquisition of [intercontinental ballistic missiles] and the capacity to put nuclear warheads on long-range missiles [means] it’s a threat that is experienced as directly by Europe and beyond. For us, I think the importance is in recognizing that this isn’t exclusively Israel’s problem. It’s not, as some have suggested, a strategic problem for the United States, but an existential one for Israel. It’s one that impacts uniformly on the international community regardless of where they geographically happen to be.

Do you think the current government is taking the Canadian Jewish community’s line more than past governments did?

I don’t think the evidence supports the assertion that the current Canadian government has embarked on a different policy track than its predecessors. If we look at the record, what we see is a movement on the part of successive governments … Even if you take specific things like votes at the United Nations: The move towards recalibrating and re-evaluating Canada’s votes began with the Martin government – not with the Harper government – where they changed a number of votes.

Pierre Pettigrew was the first foreign minister internationally to draw linkage between [Ahmadinejad’s] genocidal statements directed against Israel and [Iran’s] nuclear program. So that also predates.

On the flipside, the current government has, in another area, for example, support for legitimate Palestinian aspirations. It has provided more financial aid – to the tune of $300 million dollars – to the Palestinian authority than any previous government. It has been engaged in a series of projects and undertakings that really reflect a genuine commitment to seeing Palestinian civic society emerge, strengthened and anchored in democratic principles.

Where they have provided a sharper focus is on those things that relate to a set of principles: Israel’s right to defend itself, the reality of Israel as a sister democracy, and so forth. But that principle has been extended in other ways, too. So, for example, there were suggestions that Canada was withdrawing support from the UN Relief and Works Agency, which is the UN agency responsible for dealing with Palestinian refugees. But point in fact: Canada did not withdraw aid. What it did, in reflecting a growing concern about a lack of accountability for where its aid dollars were going, [was] it took the position that it wanted to give the exact same amount of money that it had been giving in previous years, and earmark it for specific projects from which Canada could benefit from direct accountability for where the money was expended.

So, I would say that overall, this government has been exceedingly supportive of Israel, as Canadian governments have always been, but [this] has not come at the expense of being supportive of legitimate Palestinian aspirations: Canada has been very directly engaged in trying to advance them, to play a role within the peace process, and the like.

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

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.

Irwin Cotler: Iran Represents a Critical Mass of Threat

Irwin Cotler: Iran Represents a Critical Mass of Threat


A Q&A with Irwin Cotler 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