When Canada’s Irrelevance is a Good Thing

The Harper government’s knee-jerk criticism of the nuclear deal with Iran is highly irresponsible says Steve Saideman. Fortunately, nobody else cares.

By: /
25 November, 2013
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

The P5+1 does not include Canada, and that is probably a good thing.  The P5+1 are the five permanent members of the Security Council – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia – plus Germany.  They, led by the U.S., have been bargaining with Iran over the latter’s nuclear program.  This weekend, an agreement was reached, and Canada was quick to criticize it.

So, it is a good thing that Canada is irrelevant.  Or perhaps Canada can only oppose to deal because it is irrelevant.  Either way, the Harper government’s fixation on being more hostile than thou with Iran does not matter much beyond Canada. 

Dan Drezner put it well: “The only thing going ballistic on this deal accomplishes is demonstrating your utter unreasonableness on negotiations with Iran.”  The deal is a temporary one that will have the effect of pausing Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. Its value depends critically on the next steps – will there be a more comprehensive deal?  Yet it is better than most outsiders expected.  The really good news?  It takes the military options off the table for six months.  Only those who have bet on oil price futures can be upset by that.  Of course, it would have been better if Iran had handed over the keys to their reactors to Israel and sworn off any pursuit of nuclear power and weapons, but how likely was that? 

So why is the Canadian government so critical of the agreement?  Do they have better intelligence than the Germans, the Russians, the British, the Chinese, the French, and the Americans?  Is Harper simply wiser and more cautious than the leaders of these governments?  Again, the agreement may not be perfect, and there are good reasons to distrust Iran, but there is plenty of verification built in.  Plus the sanctions regime remains in place so there are still incentives for Iran to play nice. Clearly, the Canadian position here is consistent with its previous anti-Iran stance – closing the embassy and all that.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine Iran doing anything that would satisfy this current government, even the aforementioned transfer of keys to Israel.

This, of course, has domestic politics and ideology written all over it.  Canada has no influence on events in Iran, not since its under-appreciated role in the hostage crisis of 1979-1980.  It also has no intrinsic interests in Iran. Harper seems to be playing to his party’s base. Otherwise, why make a huge stink and split from one’s allies?

The good news is that no one really cares about what Canada thinks. All eyes are on Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. The noise out of Ottawa will be drowned out by opponents in the U.S. Congress and by Israel’s protests. Indeed, Canada’s irrelevance means it can take an irresponsible position. If it actually mattered in Iran’s calculations, then the government might have to be responsible and sober in its assessment.  But as Canada does not matter, Harper and his team can criticize a pretty reasonable agreement. 

The old song suggests that freedom means you have nothing left to lose. Well, in this matter, freedom means having nothing relevant to contribute.  Harper and Foreign Minister John Baird can take strident stands here precisely because they have no responsibility.

The reality is that this deal is just part of a larger process, and it is too soon to evaluate how these negotiations will play out.  That the actors remain at the table is actually a very good thing, as we have had enough war in the Mideast over the past dozen years.  Given the eagerness that Harper had to get out of Afghanistan in 2011, he might do well to remember that a decent bargain is probably a good deal better than a bad war.

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