OTTAWA – “I think it’s very strange. At a time in history — in fact he made the announcement on the national day of remembrance for victims of terrorism — to say that his priority is the restoration, or to become best friends, with one of the state sponsors of terrorism in the world, the government of Iran, and that he wants to cut the relationship we’ve established with all of our allies.” — Prime Minister Stephen Harper, June 25.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper ripped into Justin Trudeau last week after the Liberal leader said he would re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran and end Canada’s military role in the bombing campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
How accurate were Harper’s characterizations of those policy shifts?
Would re-opening the Canadian embassy in Tehran make Canada and Iran best friends? Would pulling Canada’s fighter jets out of Iraq and Syria result in cutting Canada’s relationship with its allies?
Spoiler Alert: The Canadian Press Baloney Meter is a dispassionate examination of political statements culminating in a ranking of accuracy on a scale of “no baloney” to “full of baloney” (complete methodology below).
This one earns a rating of “a lot of baloney.” The assertion is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth.
Canada abruptly closed its embassy in Tehran and cut diplomatic relations, declaring all Iranian diplomats in Canada persona non grata, on Sept. 7, 2012.
“Canada views the government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today,” then-foreign affairs minister John Baird said in a statement.
The Conservative government justified the move by citing the failure of the Iranian government to protect diplomatic personnel, its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, threats against Israel and Tehran’s failure to comply with United Nations resolutions on its nuclear program.
It was greeted by praise and criticism alike.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “not only an act of statesmanship, but an act of moral clarity.”
Celebrated former Canadian diplomat Ken Taylor, famous for helping six Americans escape Iran in 1979 when he was ambassador there, said Canada closed its eyes and ears to a country that needed monitoring: “As a diplomat,” he said, “I think you never give up.”
Canada joined the bombing mission against ISIL in Iraq following a vote in the House of Commons on Oct. 7, 2014, with both NDP and Liberal MPs voting against the airstrikes. The first Canadian airstrikes in Syria were conducted in April this year.
More than 60 countries are involved in the international effort to degrade ISIL, according to the U.S. State Department web site. Of those, only about a half-dozen militaries are involved in airstrikes in either Iraq or Syria. Only Canada and the United States are operating in both.
The United Arab Emirates, considered a key ally because of its Sunni Arab links, formally dropped out of the bombing campaign in February without incident.
Diplomatic relations don’t equate to “best friends,” but re-establishing Canadian relations with Iran would send a signal, said Dane Rowlands, Carleton University’s director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
“Obviously we have diplomatic relations with a number of rather objectionable countries,” Rowlands said. “It’s a question of movement, the change,” that influences the relationship.
The timing of a Canadian policy shift would matter, he said, given ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and Iran over its nuclear program.
“If the nuclear talks go well, it would almost look absurd if we didn’t re-establish relations with Iran.”
Christopher Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., said the American public, “and especially many Republicans, would see Canadian engagement with Iran as naive at best, and if it undermined sanctions, it could cause a backlash from Washington but also from Europe.”
President Barack Obama has his own controversial engagement with Iran on nuclear issues and would welcome Canada’s implicit endorsement, said Sands. Still, when it came to re-establishing formal relations, Sands suggested Obama’s response to Canada would be, “Thanks, but let us go first.”
Canada’s international allies would anticipate a change in policy if there was a change in government, said Rowlands, which might reduce tensions if a new government abandoned the bombing campaign.
“Nobody in the alliance would be thrilled by this,” he said.
“Inevitably there would be a little bit of a perception that we’re cutting and running because we don’t want to be a target for ISIS terrorists, or for radical Islamic terrorism generally.”
Sands agreed Canadian disengagement wouldn’t be popular. “There would be pushback from the Obama administration, its successor, and other allies including NATO countries and Saudi Arabia.”
Roland Paris, the research chair in international security and governance at the University of Ottawa, said Canada maintained diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union during the Cold War “even in its darkest days.”
“It’s a means of communication — it always has been, including among adversaries.”
The Prime Minister’s Office was asked to provide supporting evidence for Harper’s assertions.
The decision to close Canada’s embassy in Tehran was made “on the basis that the regime had shown blatant disregard for its obligations to ensure the safety of Canadian officials,” the office responded in an email.
The response included a quote from a British secretary of state praising Canada’s decision to expand its bombing campaign to Syria, and praise from John Kerry for Canada’s work with the Americans on a range of global affairs.
Canada has diplomatic relations with many countries that are not on the current government’s “best friends” list, including Russia, Uganda and Venezuela.
Most countries in the world maintain diplomatic ties to Iran, and last year the United Kingdom restarted relations after its Tehran embassy was attacked in 2011.
“Maintaining diplomatic relations doesn’t imply political support for that state,” Paris flatly asserts.
As for Harper’s assertion that an end to the bombing mission would mean Trudeau wants to cut ties with Canada’s allies, Paris said he can’t follow the prime minister’s argument.
“We’re getting close to an election so things start getting very heated and silly.”
Still, it’s clear that ending Canada’s role in the bombing campaign against ISIL would not be welcomed by the coalition partners, even if most of the partner countries are not involved in the airstrikes — more than 80 per cent of which are conducted by the U.S. Air Force.
The U.S. State Department’s web site publicly welcomes non-military assistance from its partners in the coalition against ISIL, and no evidence could be found that ending Canada’s bombing runs, of itself, would result in Canada’s departure from the coalition.
For these reasons, Harper’s claim that Trudeau wants to be “best friends” with Iran and “cut the relationship” with Canada’s allies contains “a lot of baloney.”
The Baloney Meter is a project of The Canadian Press that examines the level of accuracy in statements made by politicians. Each claim is researched and assigned a rating based on the following scale:
No baloney – the statement is completely accurate
A little baloney – the statement is mostly accurate but more information is required
Some baloney – the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing
A lot of baloney – the statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth
Full of baloney – the statement is completely inaccurate