As Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations from 2000 to 2004, I had a front-row seat for the march to war in Iraq. Now the target is Iran, and I have the sinking feeling that I have seen this movie before. The ending isn’t happy.

In 2003, I saw Americans adding exclamation points to intelligence assessments where question marks were appropriate. Now, the most dire possible interpretation is made of an International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s nuclear activities. Israeli deputy prime minister Moshe Yaalon has even claimed that Iran is producing a 10,000-kilometre-range missile capable of reaching the United States. Shades of Tony Blair’s dodgy dossier!

The Pentagon argued in 2003 that a war in Iraq would have to be launched by March, before the hot weather made fighting impossible. Now, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak asserts that “Iran’s nuclear program is … about to enter an ‘immunity zone’ ” after which military action would be unavailing. Although Israeli intelligence leaders are openly skeptical of the wisdom of doing so, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made no secret of his interest in an attack on Iran.

Back in the day, Mr. Harper wrote to The Wall Street Journal that the Liberal government’s decision to stay out of the Iraq war was a “serious mistake” and that disarming Iraq was “necessary for the long-term security of the world.” Now, he has said it is “beyond dispute” that a goal of the Iranian nuclear program is “the development of nuclear weapons,” and that the Iranian world view means they would have “no hesitation” to use nuclear weapons.

The IAEA does have “serious concerns about possible military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear program, but it does not say it believes Iran has a nuclear weapon. In his 2011 Threat Assessment, U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper said, “We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons … should it choose to do so.” Defence Secretary Leon Panetta recently said that the Iranians are not building a nuclear weapon, but rather a capability to build a nuclear weapon.

Iran has repressed its own people, suppressed democracy, threatened Israel, sponsored terrorism and evaded the crucial UN Non-Proliferation Treaty. The question is not whether Iranian policies should be opposed, but what the most effective way is to oppose them.

What is different now from back then is that the U.S. administration does not want war. Mr. Panetta has reportedly, and surprisingly, forecast an Israeli attack on Iran in the spring, possibly deliberately giving the game away. Although the U.S. commitment to Israeli security is said to be rock-solid, the extent to which that guarantee would be exercised would depend on Israeli actions.

Iran is capable of directly attacking Western military forces in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan, and of using proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas. It could impede the shipment of the 40 per cent of the world’s oil that transits the Straits of Hormuz, causing world prices to spike and damaging already fragile Western economies. At the UN, Russia and China would likely veto any military action and might even come to Iran’s aid. And another Western attack on a Muslim state would likely trigger further Islamist extremism.

Perhaps Israel’s sabre-rattling is designed to force the pace on sanctions. Perhaps it is meant seriously. Our government should explain to Canadians whether its increasingly common characterization of Israel as an ally is purely for domestic political consumption or whether it is intended to have actual military consequences.

Acquiescing in the Iranians’ development of a nuclear bomb is hardly palatable, either. A nuclear-armed Iran would be free from attack, allowing it to dominate its neighbours, foment terrorism and export religious extremism, while triggering a regional nuclear arms race involving Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey.

Israel, the United States and the like-minded have two choices: To bomb Iran in the hope of destroying its nuclear capability and weather the negative international reaction, or to persevere with sanctions, diplomacy and deterrence. Deterrence has long been the operating principle governing relations between the West and the Soviet Union, the United States and China, and Pakistan and India. And while no one can guarantee the Israelis that a nuclear Iran would not attack Israel or hand weapons to third parties, doing so would be suicidal, rhetoric notwithstanding.

We should not allow ourselves to be stampeded into supporting a war on arbitrary timelines and hyped intelligence. Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it.

Paul Heinbecker is a former ambassador to the UN and foreign policy adviser to prime minister Brian Mulroney. He is currently director of the Laurier University Centre on Global Relations and distinguished fellow at CIGI.

We should not allow ourselves to be stampeded into supporting a war on arbitrary timelines and hyped intelligence. Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it.
The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • With a distinguished career in Canadian diplomacy — including posts as ambassador to Germany, permanent representative to the United Nations (UN) and adviser to various prime ministers, Paul Heinbecker is one of Canada’s most experienced commentators on foreign policy and international governance. Paul is also the director of the Centre for Global Relations at Wilfrid Laurier University.