When Igor Gouzenko came in from the cold 67 years ago last Wednesday, Canada had an extremely serious and completely legitimate complaint against the Soviet Union.
From 1939 until 1945, when the Soviet Union was our ally in the long war against Nazi Germany and its actual Axis of evil, it turned out the Soviets were carrying on as if we Canadians were their enemies too!
Whether by accident or design, when the little cipher clerk from the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa defected to Canada with his wife and infant child, bringing with him evidence of the extensive Soviet spying efforts against our country, Gouzenko effectively tripped the alarm that started the Cold War between the Soviet Bloc and the West.
But despite Canada's entirely legitimate complaints with the Soviet Union, what our government didn’t do about it was shut down the Soviet Embassy. Indeed, for 46 years and many profound differences, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, that embassy remained open as a patch of Soviet territory on Canadian soil, just as it was on Sept. 5, 1945.
The reason for this is pretty elementary and obvious to anyone with the common sense of a gnat: As Britain's wartime prime minister Winston Churchill famously put it, "to jawr-jawr is always better than to war-war!" (Readers must forgive my phonetic spelling.)
Or, to put that another way, it was obviously in the interests of Canadians for us to keep talking with the Soviet Union, no matter how much we disagreed with its foreign policy or its treatment of its own citizens.
The alternatives to talking really were unthinkable, it is true, which tends to concentrate the mind, as Dr. Samuel Johnson observed in a somewhat similar context. ("Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully!") Just the same, this is one of the fundamental principles that underlie the whole idea of diplomacy: talk is better than war, and war cannot be prevented without talk.
So what can we conclude about the seemingly impetuous decision last week by the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to break off diplomatic relations with the unsavoury Iranian regime and order its diplomats out of Canada? (Our embassy staff in Tehran was apparently all packed and ready to go, which suggests that this action wasn’t in fact all that impetuous.)
It's certainly very hard to make a case, for the patently obvious reasons set out above, that this action is in the interests of the people of Canada, because the interests of the people of Canada are plainly not served by any war in the Persian Gulf, no matter how limited.
If Iran is attacked, for whatever reason and by whatever party, with or without Canada's support, the probability is very high that, at least for a time, the Strait of Hormuz, the bottleneck of the Gulf, will be closed to tanker traffic. Even if the navies of the west, with their quaint faith in their own technology, manage to keep the Strait open to oil tankers, the insurance rates alone on commercial shipping will cause oil prices to soar to a level that will deeply wound the West's economies, including ours.
And if the Iranians manage to sink a tanker -- or, God forbid, an American aircraft carrier, say, with one little supersonic Moskit missile -- well, the implications are incalculable. This is why, in case you wondered, the U.S. Armed Forces and State Department have been so unenthusiastic about the prospect of doing the tango with Iran in the Gulf.
Given that, even though we are probably relatively safe behind our Atlantic and Pacific Maginot Lines, it is very clearly in Canada's interests to do what it can prevent a war in the region. So why is Harper acting like he wants one, and the sooner the better?
Could Harper's government merely be trying to protect embassy staff in Tehran or to stop nefarious Iranian activities in Ottawa, as Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird suggested on CBC radio Saturday morning?
Well, there are real concerns, given recent history, but they do not add up to reasonable case for completely shuttering two embassies. Like soldiers, diplomats are paid to take risks for their countries because it's in their countries' national interest that they do so. Typically, indeed, they’re paid quite a bit better than soldiers for their troubles. And if we can't keep an eye on the small number of Iranian diplomats in Canada, one wonders what we are paying the Canadian Security Intelligence Service half a billion dollars a year to do?
Certainly, this is not the way governments, including ours, have tended to behave throughout the history of diplomacy. So it is said here it is fair to conclude that -- about this part of the government's story at least -- Baird is simply lying.
Are they concerned about the Iranian nuclear program, if indeed its objective is to build an atomic bomb -- a tale told in some diplomatic quarters that nevertheless has many detractors and is based on questionable evidence?
Well, perhaps they are, but this is a compelling reason to keep the embassy open, not to close it. In 1945, when Gouzenko came knocking, the Soviets didn't have The Bomb yet either -- they wouldn’t explode their first atomic weapon until Aug. 29, 1949. We knew they were working on one.
Is the Harper Government marching in lockstep with Washington, as Harper has stated we ought to have done when George W. Bush targeted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass distraction a decade ago?
Well, not if we are to believe the Americans, who say they want nothing more than to open a direct dialogue with the people of Iran, if not their current leaders. "We know the Iranian people remain hungry for information about the United States -- information about travel to the U.S., educational opportunities, and our policies towards Iran and the rest of the world," says the website that is the U.S. "Virtual Embassy" to Iran.
In the absence of normal diplomatic relations, says the U.S. State Department, "we have created Virtual Embassy Tehran to offer you another perspective and another source of information, so you can make up your own minds about the U.S., our concerns about the Iranian government’s activities at home and abroad, and our serious efforts to achieve a resolution to those concerns. … This place is for you." (The site can be viewed in Farsi and English.)
So where does this leave us? Why would a government we have elected to run our country do such a thing?
Let's leave speculation about that to others. But we have a duty to ask ourselves, cui bono? Who benefits? Because it sure as hell won't be Canada or Canadians!
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.
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