Stephen Harper is caught between two allies. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travels to North America in a high-stakes gambit to find political support for a strike on Iran, Mr. Harper wants to back his Israeli ally without ticking off a bigger one in Washington.
The two prime ministers are planning to stand side by side at a press conference on Friday, where Mr. Netanyahu's case for war to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is likely to be the hot topic. Mr. Harper faces a decision about whether to endorse it, or urge restraint.
For the Israeli Prime Minister, it's a stop on the way to a far more charged meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration has urged Mr. Netanyahu to cool the rush to strike Iran. The Israeli leader will look to Mr. Harper, a staunch supporter, for signals of sympathy.
Mr. Netanyahu made the purpose of his trip clear on Monday when he said that in both meetings with Mr. Obama and Mr. Harper, Iran's nuclear program "will be at the centre of our talks." Israel's Haaretz newspaper, citing a senior official, said Mr. Netanyahu will push Mr. Obama to go beyond his line that an attack is "not off the table" and threaten to strike Iran if its nuclear program crosses "red lines."
Ottawa could be his first platform in a North American campaign to gain some international backing for an early strike. If Mr. Netanyahu is true to past form, that effort could see him appeal over Mr. Obama's head to American public opinion in an election year.
Mr. Harper has already offered some rhetorical support, in January, when he said Iran is the greatest threat to global security, in language that lends credence to a pre-emptive strike.
"In my judgment, these are people who have a particular, you know, fanatically religious worldview, and their statements imply to me no hesitation of using nuclear weapons if they see them achieving their religious or political purposes," he told the CBC.
Senior U.S. officials have since taken issue with that mad-mullahs analysis. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, described Iran as a "rational actor" and opined that a strike now would be premature. But officials in the United States have floated concerns Israel will strike this spring, as early as April.
"The Obama administration is clearly not interested in this happening in an election year – if at all. They believe that sanctions are having a considerable effect, and that they can modify Iranian behaviour in that way," said Peter Jones of the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. "It's going to be a real tug of war in Washington."
Timing is a key issue: Israel's government worries that its military won't be able to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons after this summer, even if it doesn't yet have the bomb. The United States argues there's still more time, but Israel's concern is that even if the U.S. military still has the capability to hit Iran after that, Israel's own unilateral ability to strike effectively may be gone in a few months, Mr. Jones said.
For Mr. Obama, the debate is already a feature of an election year, in which Republican contenders have charged he is soft on Iran. Both the President and then Mr. Netanyahu will deliver speeches early next week to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a major pro-Israel lobby, on either side of their meeting Monday at the White House.
For Mr. Harper, wading into the question on Friday means stepping into highly charged political terrain in the United States. He has made it a policy to back Israel, blocking, for example, language in a G8 resolution last summer that pressed Israel to negotiate peace based on pre-war 1967 boundaries, arguing it didn't underline similar concessions for Palestinians.
His staunch support, according to some who have worked closely with him on the issue, stems not from electoral politics, on an issue that is likely to have a major impact in only a handful of ridings, but on a fairly black-and-white view of Israel as the only Western-style democracy surrounded by undemocratic, hostile neighbours.
But Mr. Harper's hot rhetoric on Iran has led to criticisms that he is helping Mr. Netanyahu shrink the last opportunities for a negotiated, diplomatic solution for Iran – which insists its nuclear program is for civilian energy – to back away from developing weapons.
The former Canadian ambassador to Iran, John Mundy, penned a piece in The Globe and Mail last week urging him to cool the tone, and oppose a unilateral Israeli attack. He said that encourages diplomatic space for Iranian leaders – motivated, like others, by their own interests – to come to the negotiating table.
Houchang Hassan-Yari, an Iran expert at the Royal Military College in Kingston, said the Iranian regime won't want to appear to negotiate under threat of attack, but sanctions are biting.
Beyond the fear of Iranian retaliation, including the sponsoring of terror attacks through Hezbollah and threats to close oil shipping routes, Mr. Hassan-Yari said there is another danger: military strikes might only delay Iran's development of nuclear weapons, and in the meantime, harden the regime's resolve to acquire them, and tighten its grip on power at home.
"Although the rhetoric coming from Tehran is extremely harsh, now the sanctions are proving their effectiveness. Internally, the Islamic Republic is challenged by many people," he said. "And I would say the situation could be ripe for negotiations."