Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

The West must exhaust diplomatic options against Iran

The outlines of the next phase in Ottawa's policy on Iran became visible this week. It's all stick, no carrot. A stick needs to be waved, but other tools should go with it.

Renewed focus on Iran's nuclear program was triggered Nov. 8 when the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report that raised concerns about its possible military dimensions. Though Iran denies it, the report found the Islamic republic has worked toward a bomb in the past, and might be advancing still.

On Monday, Stephen Harper's government was part of a small group of "like-minded" countries, with Britain and the United States, that led a new round of sanctions against Iran, and the European Union will soon follow.

Story continues below advertisement

But the trick is also swaying some of the unlike-minded. The goal of sanctions is to pressure Iran to make its nuclear activities more transparent, so it can't develop weapons in secret. But Russia called the IAEA report propaganda. Though they, and China, have blocked UN sanctions, there's value in diplomatic efforts to move them, and others – even a little – toward rhetorical statements that Iran is offside, and to prod them to show results from the softer approach they advocate.

There's new war talk, with short deadlines. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Iran's nuclear-weapons program would be unstoppable within a year. It again raises the prospect Israel will strike militarily, possibly drawing in the United States

Mr. Harper's government let out some signals it would be supportive if Israel and the United States eventually felt the need to strike. Given Ottawa's vocal criticism of Tehran, staunch support of Israel, and close alliance with Washington, it's hard to imagine any other stand. An attack is not imminent, Defence Minister Peter MacKay indicated, but not off the table.

Iran has already responded by suggesting oil could be used to retaliate. Iranian parliamentarian Mehdi Mehdizadeh suggested the country would shut the Straits of Hormuz, through which 40 per cent of the world's oil passes.

Even if Iran can't pull that off, military action brings high risk. Iran has a military machine, and terror clients such as Hezbollah that could strike elsewhere. An attack would cut Iran's oil exports, forcing big customers such as China and India to buy elsewhere. The spike in prices could further shake the global economy.

But there is a "window of opportunity," according to Andrea Berger, a nuclear-security analyst with the Royal United Services Institute in London. The IAEA report detailed Iran's nuclear-weapons efforts before 2003, but the picture afterward is sketchier. Iran has enriched uranium to 20 per cent, a major hurdle before reaching weapons grade at 90 per cent, but there are inspectors at known nuclear sites. It didn't show Iran is racing toward nuclear weapons, but on "a steady crawl" toward the ability to build them, she argues.

That's not likely to convince Israel the threat is distant, but is leaves room for wider diplomatic efforts.

Story continues below advertisement

Russia and China each have different concerns in Iran, with interest in expanding influence and trade, but neither can be sanguine about a nuclear Iran. Russia's worried Iran is giving NATO reason to pursue more missile defence. In China, the concern is that attacks could cut off oil and damage its economy.

Diplomatic efforts to convince them, and others, to join in rhetorical concern about Iran's cloudy nuke program is something Canada needs to do, too. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has stressed the need for sanctions, but he also needs to stress that Iran has every chance at a way out through simple transparency. He's raised Iran with allies and concerned Arab nations, but now should campaign and cajole other capitals to try every tack.

Will diplomacy deter Iran? Wade Huntley, a nuclear security expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., is skeptical. But either way, he said, it's worth trying. It reaches out to less hard-line factions in complex Iran. And before there's a decision on whether to accept a nuclear Iran or attack it, it would be better, for either choice, if other nations had distanced themselves from Tehran.

"If you do reach that decision point, it matters how the rest of the countries in the region, and the world, are positioned," he said. "And if the West has made every reasonable effort, the better the chance the blowback will be minimized."

Campbell Clark writes on foreign affairs from Ottawa

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at