This week, OpenCanada asked six experts on the Middle East about Canada's current policy towards Iran. Below is an op-ed by Professor Reg Whitaker of York University, who has been following the Canadian Israeli lobby for the past several decades. To read the other responses, click here.
The Stephen Harper government is determined to make its standing as Israel’s “best friend” the unshakeable bedrock of its Middle Eastern policy. While this determination may stem in part from domestic politics, it must be judged by its consequences for Canadian foreign policy. Currently, the best-friend policy is facing a very grave test in the possibility of Israel precipitating a war with Iran.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has, for some time, been beating war drums for a pre-emptive strike against an alleged Iranian nuclear-weapons program, most recently visiting Washington and Ottawa to enlist support for unilateral Israeli action. Yet, Israeli opinion is hardly united on this course. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan says the idea of an Israeli air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities is “the stupidest thing [he has] ever heard,” the present Mossad chief has publicly questioned Netanyahu’s insistent assertion that an Iranian bomb would pose an existential threat to Israel, and the Israeli military command has shown no enthusiasm for pre-emptive action. No persuasive case has been made that pre-emptive strikes could actually succeed in permanently destroying Iran’s weapons capacity, although it could very well precipitate a wider war.
U.S. President Barack Obama can hardly be happy about the prospect of being dragged into another Middle East conflict, particularly one fraught with the volatile potential for wider destabilization, not to speak of the economic ramifications that could inhibit global recovery. But Netanyahu, along with the entire Israeli right, has clearly written off the democratic president. A crude political calculation would suggest that a unilateral Israeli strike in the middle of the U.S. presidential election could place Obama in a lose-lose situation: While refusing to back up the Israelis could lead to an electoral backlash, supporting Israel would clearly signal that Netanyahu holds the upper hand, a humiliating sign of the tail wagging the dog.
By relentlessly dramatizing the Iranian menace, Netanyahu has already achieved one crucial victory: The entire issue of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been swept off the table, while his government proceeds with establishing further Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Cynically, one might thus assume that Netanyahu can declare his “mission accomplished” and cool down the Iranian polemics. However, speaking in Washington to the Israeli lobby group AIPAC, he compared the present situation to the wartime allied decision of whether to bomb Auschwitz. Such references to the Holocaust in discussions of the existential threat posed by Iran may well leave him with no exit strategy.
Rhetoric aside, even the prospect of Iran eventually acquiring some nuclear capacity (bad as that would be) may not result in the worst-case scenario, which would be a regional war spinning out of control. In any event, despite western demonization of the Iranian leadership, the actual record of Iranian behaviour as a regional power has been cautious and circumspect, always fixed firmly on Iranian national interests, and never on ideological adventures. Ironically, the biggest gain that Iran made in the last several decades was a costless gift from the Americans. Former U.S. president George W. Bush’s Iraq fiasco got rid of Iran’s greatest regional rival, Saddam Hussein, and brought a Shiite-dominated pro-Iranian regime into power in Iraq.
Diplomacy has not been exhausted. Immediately following Netanyahu’s Washington visit, world leaders agreed to Iran’s proposal to resume direct talks over “nuclear issues” for the first time in over a year. At the same time, Iran agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency access to Parchin, a suspected site of nuclear-weapons experimentation. Israel welcomed this, but has set its bar high for Iranian compliance.
This is the moment when Israel’s true friends should be urging restraint on a potentially reckless Israeli government. Republican presidential contenders are perversely promising blank cheques for an Israeli attack if elected. With the Israeli right deeply suspicious of Obama, and of allegedly anti-Israeli European opinion, this is where Canada comes into focus. The fulsome “best friend” image that Harper and his ministers have fostered has been widely noted in the Israeli media and warmly welcomed by a country that finds itself increasingly isolated in world opinion.
Like the Republican hawks, Canada could choose to offer unconditional support to Israel’s more reckless tendencies. Or it could choose to advise against self-destructive behaviour, thus encouraging wiser heads in Israel. Surely the latter would be the proper course of a true “best friend.”
Photo courtesy of Reuters