For all the competing interests and necessary niceties that can cloud a country’s foreign policy, the underlying objectives are often crystal clear. Leaders seek better trading opportunities, a safer world and justice for their citizens. In Iran, the objective of every Western nation is to see a more legitimate and more democratic government. It would be better for the people of Iran, of course, and it might even make it possible to negotiate coherently over key issues such as nuclear weapons, the proliferation of terrorism, and peace in the Middle East.
The ongoing protests in Iran over a clearly fraudulent election suggest change may be in the offing for the theocratic republic. What should the rest of the world be doing?
The first step is to be clear on the principles at stake. On this front, Canada has been a world leader.
Our country was among the first to condemn the voting irregularities and subsequent state-sponsored violence. Three days after the June 12 election, Lawrence Cannon, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, stated he was “deeply troubled” by the events. Britain’s foreign secretary made similar views known on the same day. The White House offered a mere two-sentence release from a press secretary saying it was “monitoring” the issue.
Since then, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has continued to press his government’s case. This week he called the Iranian government’s violent response “wholly unacceptable.” He added that “the regime has chosen to use brute force and intimidation in responding to peaceful opposition regarding legitimate and serious allegations of electoral fraud.” It’s worth noting that Canada has not exchanged ambassadors with Iran since 2007 and for the past six years we have taken the lead on a UN resolution regarding human rights abuses in Iran.
Such forceful expressions of opinion and action contrast sharply with U.S. President Barack Obama’s haphazard line on Iran. He has mostly kept a low profile on this issue, claiming he didn’t want to make the Iranian election “an argument about the United States.” Obama may be trying to fulfill his campaign promise for a “fresh start” on Middle East peace talks. But this week, stung by Republican criticism that he was giving anti-democratic forces in Iran an easy ride, Obama sharpened his rhetoric somewhat. The overall effect has been confusing and largely forgettable.
Obviously statements alone will not effect permanent change in Iran. If the country is to convert itself into a functioning democracy, that change must come from within. But clear and consistent expressions of principle on Iran by Western leaders serve three important functions. They speak truths to domestic audiences, they send a message of support to beleaguered protesters, and they warn the Iranian regime that the rest of the world is watching.
Through its consistent and unequivocal defence of democracy and Western ideals, Canada has delivered these important messages. Obama has not. When it comes to the cause of freedom, the world’s most important democracy should lead, not follow.