OTTAWA – American praise for Canada as one of its strongest allies in the fight against militants in Iraq and Syria wasn’t enough to conceal sharp differences Friday over the role of Iran in potentially helping the cause.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a special ministerial meeting of the United Nations Security Council that “our near neighbour to the north” was making one of the strongest contributions in the battle, prior to an address by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
“I must say, immediately, perhaps one of the first to sign on and one of the strongest in their commitments, and we’re very grateful for what Canada does. They’ve already done so much,” Kerry told the large council gathering of foreign ministers and ambassadors.
But another remark by Kerry to the council would highlight a major difference in how Washington and Ottawa view Iran’s role in stopping the marauding members of the group Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, which has captured parts of Iraq and Syria.
Kerry said there’s a role for nearly every country in the world, “including Iran,” in stopping the spread of Islamic State. The unlikely alliance has come because Iran’s Shiite clerics have thrown their support behind Iraqi fighters trying to stem the tide of the mainly Sunni Islamic State.
Asked after the session whether he agreed with Kerry, Baird stuck to Canada’s hard line.
“From time to time, we take a different point of view,” Baird said. Iran, he said, is “involved in a negative way in every single country in the region.”
Baird said Canada remains concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its support for terrorism and its “abysmal and deteriorating human rights record,” which includes persecution of women and gays.
“I hope to be proven wrong,” Baird said.
“We welcome a government of Iran who wants to take a take a different path and play a constructive role,” he added.
“Obviously, the Iranian people will have the huge potential to play a much bigger role, not just in the region, but in world affairs. And we look forward to the day when circumstances will allow that.”
Baird was in New York for the Security Council session — one of several foreign ministers not on the council that Kerry invited — to rally support for an Iraqi government struggling to contain Islamic State.
In his speech, Baird likened the fight against militants in Iraq and Syria to the historic struggles against communism and fascism as he backed the Security Council’s call for more international support.
“These terrorists talk openly about wanting to establish a caliphate from India to south of Spain,” he said.
“To confront them, we must rely on the forces that have shaped human history … principles that have withstood the tests of fascism, of communism and now terrorism.”
Baird travelled to Iraq earlier this month, meeting leaders of the country’s central government in Baghdad before travelling to the country’s Kurdish north.
Baird and the two opposition foreign affairs critics — New Democrat Paul Dewar and Liberal Marc Garneau — visited a Kurdish Peshmerga combat bunker about one kilometre from a village occupied by about 150 Islamic State fighters.
Baird welcomed U.S. military leadership in Iraq, but a few hours before he addressed the council, France became the second country to join the fight alongside American forces, which have conducted 176 air strikes on Iraq since Aug. 8.
The four laser guided bombs that French Rafale jets dropped on an Islamic State weapons and fuel depot Friday opened a new chapter in Franco-American military co-operation: France was one of the most vocal opponents of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Canada has committed 69 special forces advisers to assist the Iraqi forces, and has contributed two military transport planes that are delivering guns and ammunition to the Kurdish forces.
Baird offered few new details about Canada’s military contribution to Iraq — one the government maintains will be strictly non-combat —but he reminded the council that Canada has committed millions of dollars to help stop the flow of foreign fighters, and alleviate the human suffering of internally displaced Iraqis.
He also used the opportunity to highlight one of his foreign policy priorities: defending the rights of persecuted religious minorities.
Baird visited three different internally displaced person camps in northern Iraq and recalled meeting a Christian family who described to him how they fled their home on five minutes’ notice after their neighbours informed on them to Islamic State.
“This rejection of religious freedom, this severing of long-standing bonds and shared history — this is not humanity,” he said. “It is the law of the jungle.”
For Canada, Friday’s session marked a rare appearance at the Security Council.
Canada lost its bid for a temporary, two-year seat on the Security Council in 2010, its first such failure in 60 years after six previous stints.