Canada's address to the UN by John Baird, Minister of (truth is) Foreign Affairs

Photo: DFATD | MAECD/flickr

On the last day of September, John Baird delivered Canada's address to the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly. Though the speech had much to say that was admirable about violence against women, when it came to violence against Syria and Iran, the speech traded in unverified assumptions, omissions and deception.

On Syria, Baird said, "Canada's position is clear." He said that Canada "will never support a brutal and illegitimate regime that has unleashed weapons of mass destruction on its own people." Nor should Canada support a regime that has used weapons of mass destruction. But Canada does not know that the Syrian regime used weapons of mass destruction. No one does. The United Nations' report on the chemical weapons attack of August 21 did conclude that there was conclusive evidence that sarin gas was used, but it made no conclusions about who used it: that was outside of its mandate. So Baird was going beyond the evidence of what is known and claiming to know what he does not know.

And there is plenty of reason to reserve judgment regarding responsibility. Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi has said that "much of the U.S. intelligence community is troubled by the quality of the information being used to justify a new war." Indeed, investigative historian Gareth Porter has shown that the U.S. government's claims about regime responsibility for the Syrian chemical weapons attack of August 21 did not even represent an intelligence community assessment. The report was a White House document that was generated by cherry picking the intelligence that suited the policy and omitting the intelligence that didn't. Porter points out that, though such an assessment would normally come from the office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), DNI James Clapper would neither put his name on this report nor endorse it.

Baird has relied before on the claim that the type of missiles used demonstrates a sophistication indicative of government responsibility. But Robert Fisk has reported that Russian information on the dates of exports of the specific rockets used and the countries to which they were sold, reveal that Russia did not provide these rockets to Syria. They were, however, sold to Libya, and Assad has long claimed that Soviet-made weaponry was leaking out of Libya and across Syrian borders into rebel hands.

There are other reasons to reserve judgment regarding responsibility. American Secretary of State John Kerry first called the granting of unlimited access to sites said to have been hit by chemical weapons "too late to be credible." A State Department spokesperson has confirmed that he then intervened and pressured UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to call off the UN investigation. Why? Was Washington afraid the evidence wouldn't fit the policy? And was Syria delaying as Kerry complained? In fact, Syria agreed to the UN request for unlimited access the very day after it received it.

Robert Fisk reports that "grave doubts are being expressed by the UN and other international organizations in Damascus that the sarin gas missiles were fired by Assad's army." Why would Assad use chemical weapons now? Why would he restrain from using them when things looked bad for him, and then use them when the tide was turning in his favour? Why draw American forces over the red line when he was beginning to win? How would that help him now? And why would he wait until U.N. weapons inspectors had arrived in the area to fire his chemical-laden rockets only two days later? And why, Fisk asks, would Assad guarantee the loss of his entire stockpile of chemical weapons over the firing of only seven half-century-old missiles?

None of this represents a claim that we know Assad is not responsible. But Baird is certainly going beyond the evidence and the conclusions of the UN weapons inspectors when he claims to be basing Canadian foreign policy on what we know.

On Iran, Baird was no more constrained by the truth or restrained by the evidence. Baird mocked that "sound bites do not remove threats to global security." He dismissed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's diplomacy as "[k]ind words, a smile and a charm offensive" that is "not a substitute for real action."

But Baird is going beyond the evidence and basing Canadian foreign policy on what he does not know regarding the first point: Iran's threat to global security. And he is omitting inconvenient facts when he says, "We will judge the [Iranian] regime on the basis of its action," and then omits the regime's actions in order to be able to misleadingly claim that "we will welcome and acknowledge reform, if and when it comes," but that it has "[n]ot yet" come, that "we haven't seen any change in Iran's action."

But that's not true. There have been changes in Iran's action. And it's not true that Canada knows that Iran poses a threat to global security.

A government only knows what the world's intelligence communities tell it. The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) represents the collective conclusions of all of America's many intelligence agencies. The NIE that was delivered to the U.S. President in 2007 told him with "high confidence" that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003. That conclusion has been "revalidated every year," according to former CIA analyst Ray McGovern. The most recent NIE provides even "more evidence to support that assessment," according to sources of investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. General James Clapper, who, according to Hersh, is responsible for preparing the NIE, has said, "the bottom-line assessments of the [2007] NIE still hold true. We have not seen indications that the government has made the decision to move ahead with the program." When Clapper was asked by Senate Armed Service Committee chair Carl Levin if the level of confidence that Iran has not restarted a nuclear weapons program was high, General Clapper answered, "Yes, it is." Hersh quotes a retired senior intelligence officer as saying "none of our efforts -- informants, penetrations, planting of sensors -- leads to a bomb."

Hersh says that "despite years of covert operations inside Iran, extensive satellite imagery, and the recruitment of many Iranian intelligence assets, the United States and its allies, including Israel, have been unable to find irrefutable evidence of an ongoing hidden nuclear-weapons program in Iran." Israeli military chief of staff Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz has said that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon. And last year, then Defense Minister Ehud Barak, when asked on Israeli Military Radio if Israel believed Iran was building nuclear weapons, answered, "… confusion stems from the fact that people ask whether Iran is determined to break out from the control [inspection] regime right now … in an attempt to obtain nuclear weapons or an operable installation as quickly as possible.  Apparently that is not the case… "

And it's not just the U.S. and her allies. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has also found no evidence of a nuclear weapons program. Former director of the IAEA Mohamed ElBaredei told Hersh that "[d]uring my time at the agency, we haven't seen a shred of evidence that Iran has been weaponizing."

So if John Baird knows that Iran is a threat to global security, if he knows that Iran is on the path towards a nuclear weapon and that it needs to be forced to "take a different path on its nuclear program," then Canada has knowledge that no one else in the world has, and Canada has a source of knowledge that no other intelligence organization has: not the Americans, not the Israelis, not the IAEA. As with his claims about Syria, Baird is basing Canadian foreign policy on conclusions that go beyond what the evidence allows.

As for his claim before the UN General Assembly that Iranian words are not backed by Iranian actions, Baird must ignore a lot of inconvenient actions. Rouhani declared in a September 18 NBC interview that "We have never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb, and we are not going to do so." The interviewer pressed him to clarify: "Can you say that Iran will not build a nuclear weapon under any circumstances whatsoever?" Rouhani responded, "We have time and again said that under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever."

But Rouhani has offered not only words. His assurances are also being backed by actions. According to the International Atomic Energy Association, Iran has been putting the brakes on its accumulation of 20 per cent enriched uranium because it has been converting it into solid uranium oxide powder to turn it into fuel plates for medical isotopes. Ali Akbar Salehi reports that Iran's stock of 20 per cent enriched uranium has dropped significantly from 240 kg to around 140 kg due to conversion to fuel plates for medical use. He also offers the assurance that the rest is being converted.

The reduction of 20 per cent enriched uranium suggests that Rouhani's words are not just meant to charm but are meant to be believed. While America and Israel have accused Iran of enriching uranium as part of a military program, Iran has insisted that it is part of a peaceful civilian program.

Iran enriches uranium to 3.5 per cent for energy. The country needs uranium enriched to 19.5 per cent for medical isotopes used in the imaging and treating of cancer. In 1988, Iran acquired 20 per cent uranium from Argentina. While Iran had the 20 per cent enriched uranium it needed to keep hospitals running, it never enriched uranium beyond the 3.5 per cent needed for energy. When it began to run out of the 20 per cent enriched uranium, Iran went to the International Atomic Energy Association and asked for its help in purchasing more. But the U.S. and its European allies prevented the purchase, leaving Iran to either make its own or stop treating its citizens with cancer. Iran has subsequently agreed on a number of occasions to send its 3.5 per cent enriched uranium out of the country to be returned as medical isotopes produced in other countries. Most recently, a Brazilian-Turkish brokered uranium swap was shot down by the U.S. Only after Iran had exhausted every other legal means of acquiring 19.5 per cent uranium for its hospitals did it turn to legally enriching its own uranium to 20 per cent.

Iran's defence, then, is based on the claim that it is further enriching uranium to 20 per cent solely for use in its hospitals and not for use by its military. Now that Iran has enough, according to the International Atomic Energy Association, it is converting its 20 per cent uranium to fuel plates for medical use instead of continuing to produce the amount of 20 per cent uranium that would be necessary to further enrich it to the 90 per cent needed to make a bomb. That seems to back Iran's claim that it is enriching for medical purposes and not military purposes. And that's not just words: that is significant action.

And Rouhani has undertaken further actions that are consistent with his words. He successfully transferred jurisdiction for nuclear negotiations to the foreign ministry and away from the Supreme National Security Council, sidelining the more hard-line Iranian Revolutionary Guard: a significant and personally risky move. As foreign minister, Rouhani has appointed Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is seen as more moderate. Zarif is a diplomat who was educated in the United States, and he has close contacts with high-ranking U.S. officials, including Vice-President Biden and Secretary of Defense Hagel.

So Baird is deceptively omitting much of Rouhani's recent actions to make his claim that we have "[n]ot yet" seen real action, and that Rouhani's statements are just "kind words, a smile and a charm offensive."

Baird also pronounced that "[n]ow is the time for the global community to maintain tough sanctions against Iran," while simultaneously claiming that "Canada wants the Iranian people to be able to access a life of … prosperity for themselves." But Baird is being disingenuous. He knows, not only that the sanctions are harming the Iranian people and denying them prosperity, but that that is at least part of the purpose of the very sanctions he is demanding. Both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden have publicly confessed to that role of sanctions, as Franklin Lamb has pointed out. When she was still Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton admitted that causing concern to the Iranian people is part of the goal of sanctions: "So we hope the Iranian people will make known their concerns ... so my message to Iranians is do something about this." Vice-President Biden also revealed that the U.S. knows that sanctioning Iran harms the people of Iran: "We have also made it clear that Iran's leaders need not sentence their people to economic deprivation." So Baird knows that sanctioning Iran targets the people of Iran as instruments of regime change, and he is being dishonest when he demands both tough sanctions on Iran and prosperity for the people of Iran.

And finally, there is one more aspect of Baird's speech that puts a mask on the Canadian face that Baird knows is dishonest. Baird twice refers to "sexual freedom" and the "[f]reedom to love." This value is a Canadian value, but it is not a value of the party Baird represents. Though Baird himself has been an advocate of gay rights, his Conservative party has not. When the vote for same-sex marriage first came before the Canadian parliament, it passed. But Stephen Harper's Conservative party voted overwhelmingly 93-8 against it. Then the leader of the opposition, Stephen Harper proclaimed that "same sex marriage is not a human right," and that "when elected Prime Minister ... I will bring in legislation that will define marriage as the union of one man and one woman."

In the first year of Harper's administration, he did introduce a motion to put an end to same-sex marriages. His minority government's motion was defeated. But Harper's Conservative party again voted overwhelmingly against same-sex marriage by a margin of 110-13.

So while Canada and John Baird do support "sexual freedom" and the "[f]reedom to love," the government he was representing, because Prime Minister Stephen Harper once again declined to speak at the UN, does not, making the comment not just a little dishonest and hypocritical.

So on all of Syria, Iran and human rights, what was truly foreign to the Minister of Foreign Affairs was the truth.

Ted Snider has his masters in philosophy and teaches high school English and politics in Toronto.

Photo: DFATD | MAECD/flickr

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