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Andrew Cohen: Contrarian Canada jeers from the cheap seats

The long-awaited nuclear agreement with Iran was only hours old, but that did not prevent John Baird from summoning the media to convey a reflexive and reliable hostility.

The long-awaited nuclear agreement with Iran was only hours old, but that did not prevent John Baird from summoning the media to convey a reflexive and reliable hostility.

True, Canada’s foreign affairs minister did not go as far as the prime minister of Israel, who called the agreement a “historic mistake.” For our part, Canada is “deeply skeptical.”

If this was about trusting the Iranians, Baird sniffed, forget it. Hadn’t Iran defied the UN Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency? “Simply put, Iran has not earned the right to have the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

In rejecting the deal, Canada has alienated itself from its closest allies — the United States, Britain, France and Germany — that spent months negotiating with the Iranians in Geneva. On the world’s most pressing issue of peace and security, we are now virtually alone. Canada has broken with Britain and France on big issues, such as the Suez Crisis in 1956, when we took sides with the U.S. We broke with Washington on the war in Vietnam, and with Britain and the U.S. on the war in Iraq.

But falling out with the U.S. and Europe on a question of this stature? That’s extraordinary, if not unprecedented.

The agreement with Iran isn’t a peacenik’s plot. We don’t have to trust Russia and China and their unsavoury interests. The signatories include Barack Obama’s Democrats, David Cameron’s Conservatives, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and François Hollande’s Socialists.

It does not include Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

That’s because, as the world’s moral superpower, we’re smarter and shrewder than everyone else. We see farther and clearer.

Us? We won’t join this crowd of weak-kneed, well-meaning naifs. With Churchillian self-confidence, we Canadians stand alone against the appeasers, defeatists, shiver-sisters and naysayers who would coddle the mullahs of Iran.

“We have a made-in-Canada foreign policy,” declared Baird, lest you think we take dictation from Washington, Paris or London. We certainly do have our foreign policy — and now, at this pivotal moment, it is monumentally out of step with the U.S., the European Union and almost everyone else.

Take heart, though. Our allies in opposing the deal include not only the government of Israel, dominated by the rejectionist Likud Party, but our old friend, Saudi Arabia. We also make common cause here with the Tea Party Republicans and the Christian right in the U.S.

But those allies do not include much of the political opposition in Israel — or even President Shimon Peres, who sounds more conciliatory on Iran than Baird does.

Iran reminds us, again, how irrelevant Canada has become in the world. We have nothing new or creative to say anymore. We are now a spectator jeering from the cheap seats.

Having lost our traditional rotating seat on the Security Council, having withdrawn from UN conventions and accords out of pique and pettiness or failed to implement them (see cluster bombs), our goodwill abroad has virtually evaporated.

Having closed our embassy in Iran, we cannot even engage Iran anymore. And even if we did, given our zealous support for Israel, it would not listen to us.

Let’s be clear. A principled Canadian foreign policy did not begin with the Conservatives in 2006. Canada has always been an unwavering friend of Israel, in which unwavering didn’t mean unquestioning.

If we truly cared about Israel, we would use our good offices in Jerusalem not to broker peace between Arabs and Israelis, which we cannot do anyway, but to encourage a more productive dialogue between Israel and the U.S. (which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has mishandled badly) and its allies, in the delicate process of disarming Iran. Here we might do some good.

Yes, Iran is a terrorist state and this agreement is imperfect. Like all practical statecraft, the agreement sees the world as it is.

Fundamentally, though, this is a reasonable alternative to attacking Iran, which no one credible thinks would do anything other than delay its nuclear program anyway. It is a way to test Iran’s bona fides, to use the carrot while brandishing the stick.

Perhaps the much-maligned agreement will fall apart and Baird can say: “We told you so!” Today, though, we sulk and balk at the diplomacy that was once the hallmark of our internationalism. On Iran, the “historic mistake” may well be Canada’s.

Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.