Foreign Affairs minister John Baird’s precipitous decision in Vladivostok to sever diplomatic relations with Iran has left the Canadian public, not to speak of Canadian and foreign diplomats, shaking their heads trying to figure out a rational explanation for why such a grave decision was taken, and why at this time.
Some have pointed to the Conservative government’s remarkably close relationship with Israel at a time when the Netanyahu government is beating the war drums for an attack on Iran; others have hinted at threats to the safety of Canadian diplomats in Tehran; while yet others have cited alleged CSIS intelligence about unspecified threats emanating from the Iranian embassy in Ottawa to Canadian national security.
The government’s own spokespersons have scattered explanations all over the map. Perhaps the most bizarre was from Minister Baird, who cited Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria – even though this rationale was offered while Baird was in Russia, which also materially supports the Syrian government, with no fears of Canadian diplomatic reprisals. And of course, there is the all-purpose argument about the odious nature of the Iranian regime, despite the obvious fact that diplomatic relations have never implied approval of the politics of the country with which representatives are exchanged.
It has come to light through Access to Information requests that while John Baird was in Israel recently he received an intelligence briefing from the Director of Mossad, prompting speculation that he may have been given advance warning about an Israeli strike on Iran, leading to fears of reprisals against the Canadian embassy in Tehran, although this suggestion has been vigorously denied by Canada and is inherently implausible (Israel would hardly leak information on a planned military strike).
What I have not seen amidst the plethora of possible explanations is another dimension altogether, one raised by the leader of the opposition in the Israeli Knesset while berating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his open conflict with US President Barack Obama over Iran. Shaul Mofaz asked: “Mr. Prime Minister, tell me, who is our biggest enemy, the US or Iran? Who do you want replaced, [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad or Obama?” Mofaz has a good point.
From the beginning of the war scare over the Iranian nuclear program, Netanyahu’s primary target has been ambiguous. From time to time he has made the implausible claim that an Israeli attack would precipitate regime change in Iran, when all knowledgeable observers – including strong critics of Ahmadinejad within Iran – agree that it would unite the country behind the present regime. More plausibly, the threat of Israeli action against Iran has been deployed quite deliberately for partisan effect in the US presidential election, to promote Mitt Romney’s bid to end the Obama presidency.
The message about the alleged Iranian nuclear threat to Israel has always been orchestrated in close conjunction with the American Right, which sees a convergence of interests with Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition. A key figure here is Sheldon Adelson, the elderly multibillionaire Los Vegas-to-Macau casino magnate who is throwing millions of his dollars into two closely related crusades: backing the extreme Zionists in Israel and driving Barack Obama from the White House.
In Israel, Adelson is a major backer of Netanyahu and his Likud party. It was widely believed in Likud that Netanyahu’s disastrous first run as Prime Minister in the mid-1990s was undermined by an allegedly hostile Israeli media. To assist Netanyahu back to office, Adelson in 2007 established Israel Hayom, a freebie daily tabloid newspaper that quickly achieved the widest circulation in the country. The paper spares no expense in relentlessly promoting Netanyahu, with Adelson’s very deep pockets absorbing the losses, estimated to be in the range of over $100 million in the paper’s first five years of operation. Israelis jokingly call Israel Hayom ‘Bibiton’, after Netanyahu’s nickname, Bibi, and the Hebrew word for newspaper, iton.
The American prong of Adelson’s crusade opened with his lavish financial backing of Newt Gingrich in the Republican primaries. Gingrich commended himself to Adelson by publicly denying the very existence of the Palestinian people. However, when Gingrich predictably self-destructed, Adelson quickly redirected his tens of millions to the Republican winner, Mitt Romney. Through direct contributions or through a series of super-PACs, Adelson has expressed his willingness to donate up to $100 million to defeat Obama.
Why this apparently bottomless hatred of the President? Along with the Israeli Right, and on the basis of astonishingly scant evidence, Adelson believes that Obama is ‘anti-Israel’. So long as Obama remains in the White House he allegedly constitutes a threat to Israel rivalling the threat of an Iranian nuke. Given Obama’s oft-repeated backing for Israel, it is hard to credit the Israeli and American right-wing caricature. Apparently anything that falls even a centimetre short of an undated but fully endorsed blank cheque for Netanyahu is considered an existential threat to Israel.
Netanyahu’s Plan A appears to have been to intervene in the midst of the presidential election with an ultimatum to Obama. Israel sees a threat to its very existence in the imminent Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability and therefore intends to carry out a series of airstrikes on alleged Iranian weapons sites. Obama’s Hobson’s choice would be: cave in to Netanyahu and offer American military support, thus demonstrating in the most humiliating manner that the Israeli tail wags the American dog; or refuse to intervene and thus give Romney an uncontested field as the American global strong man who stands up for America’s allies and faces down Islamist dictators trying to grab weapons of mass destruction (and in the process steals the crucial Jewish vote from the Democrats): a win-win for Netanyahu and for Adelson.
Happily for the rest of the world, Plan A came unstuck. Netanyahu did not foresee that his own military and intelligence establishment would write off a unilateral Israeli attack as politically unjustified, militarily ill-conceived, unworkable in terms of its objectives, and fraught with potentially devastating consequences. He has not been able to get his own national security cabinet to agree on action. Even his defence minister Ehud Barak, previously a vociferous supporter of a hard line on Iran, has begun recently to cool down and advise caution. At the same time it became apparent that the Obama administration was not especially cowed by Netanyahu’s menacing actions, even after the Israeli prime minister had used appearances before AIPAC, the Israeli American lobby group, and Republican-dominated congressional committees, to publicly rebuke Obama. Even after Mitt Romney visited Israel (where he held an extraordinary closed door meeting with American financial backers put together by Adelson), polls showed that two thirds of the Jewish vote was sticking with Obama.
At this point alarm began to spread in Israel that Netanyahu was putting his country out on a very dangerous limb, risking a war with potentially disastrous consequences and risking the crucially important special relationship of Israel with the United States. What would happen if, after all Netanyahu’s provocations and Adelson’s millions, Obama, still leading in the polls, is re-elected in November? Plan A began looking suspiciously like Israel shooting itself in both feet.
Everything was coming to a head between Israel and Washington in the past few weeks. And other Western countries, especially the U.K., were also registering their disquiet with Israeli recklessness. This was the context within which Baird made his sudden shock announcement in Vladivostok. The flimsy scattershot explanations that have seeped out have served only to mystify the grounds for the decision. But Netanyahu quickly and gratefully picked up Baird’s gambit at a news conference where he cited the Canadian action as one that should be followed by other countries. This suggests that the Harper government, well-known for its unrelentingly pro-Israeli stance, was trying to in the first instance to help out its good friend Netanyahu at a moment when his relations with the Americans and other Western countries were under strain.
Canada is not, whatever Canadians might like to think, a significant player on the world stage when it comes to decisions of war and peace (the Chrétien government’s refusal to back the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq did not, alas, have any effect in slowing that folly). But Netanyahu has to take his allies where he can find them, even if they are a country that under Harper’s management could not even get voted onto the UN Security Council.
In practice, no other country has followed Canada’s lead. As for influencing the Americans, Canada might as well have been pissing into the wind. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has now put her foot down by declaring that the U.S. will not back an Israeli attack and prefers diplomacy. Netanyahu has desperately declared that Obama and other Western leaders have no “moral right” [!] to give Israel the red light. Clearly, however, unilateral action by Israel is now unlikely before the American election. Plan A is in tatters, and was certainly not saved by Ottawa.
There is one final, disquieting, political element to this sorry tale of stumblebum Canadian diplomacy. The Harper government has been highly visible in its fervent wooing of the Jewish vote out of the Liberal into the Tory camp, with some signal success in the last election. Replacing a Middle East policy with a blank cheque for Netanyahu has been central to that effort. In other words, a Sheldon Adelson-like strategy (without Adelson-like millions in campaign funds in the more regulated Canadian political finance scene) has guided Tory campaign planning.
A worrying possibility is that the Iran decision may have been motivated by another Adelson-like objective – to help remove Barack Obama from the White House. Certainly our small-c and large-C conservatives are much closer in spirit and ideology to the Republicans than to the Democrats. Specifically, Obama’s hold on the Keystone-XL TransCanada pipeline project to carry Alberta oilsands bitumen to the United States has thrown at least a temporary wrench into the Harper’s government’s oilsands export-led development strategy. A Romney administration could be expected to ignore those “environmentalists and other radicals” who have been bedeviling the ‘drill, baby, drill!’ enthusiasts on both sides of the border.
Harper, unlike Netanyahu, is too smart to make any public intervention in the American election. But if private antipathy to the Obama administration did play any part in explaining Canada’s otherwise inexplicable decision on Iran, it does not look like paying off. Regime change in Tehran is one thing, but trying to influence regime change in Washington is quite another.
It’s time to send Canadian diplomacy back to the drawing board.