Two Tweets on Iran That Speak Volumes About Ottawa

Published in the Toronto Star, November 25, 2013

As months of negotiations between the “P5+1” world powers and Iran concluded on Saturday night with the announcement of a deal struck in Geneva, Canada’s role at this historic moment was never in doubt. Having suspended diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012, and hurled a continual stream of hostility and contempt its way ever since, Canada is in no position to play any constructive role during the next six months, while economic sanctions are eased in return for Iran’s suspension of its nuclear program. On Sunday, Foreign Minister John Baird talked about grounds for skepticism about Iran’s intentions as if he were delivering bold news to the world — but the deal’s provision for stringent nuclear inspections shows that Canada’s Cassandra role is unnecessary.

So that leaves Canada’s reaction to the Iran deal as a matter less of global than domestic import. And since Canadians haven’t learned anything substantively new about our government’s position vis-à-vis Iran in the past few days, it is instructive to look at things from a different angle. Keen Ottawa-watchers will have noted that the bulk of interesting insights into the current Senate scandal and its origins has recently come not from the Prime Minister but from various staffers in and around the PMO. So too in this matter of Iran, communiqués from senior staffers speak volumes.

When the Prime Minister’s representative gibes that the soundness of the government’s foreign policy is attested to by the disagreement of a respected former ambassador to the country in question, that’s more than just a flip comment.

Two humble tweets on the topic bear some scrutiny. The first, issued scarcely an hour after the Iran deal was announced on Saturday night, came from Baird’s communications director Rick Roth. Following on the heels of an initial tweet giving Baird’s pro forma affirmation of Canada’s support for diplomatic measures to remove an Iranian nuclear threat, Roth issued this second tweet: “We appreciate the earnest efforts of the P5+1. A nuclear Iran is not just a threat to Canada and its allies.”

There is nothing overtly sinister in that message; expressing appreciation for others’ efforts rarely does harm. But the importance of tweeting “earnest” is that the word carries an unmistakable undertone of condescension and dismissal. “Here are some bumbling fools,” it says, “who attempted something beyond their reach and who we’ll politely pat on the head for reaching a hollow agreement that has no hope of success.”

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In light of Canada’s long-held reputation (prior to the Harper years) as an international do-gooder, it is quite something to see our foreign minister’s spokesman faintly praising none other than the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia as “earnest.” But apart from the historical irony, it also speaks to a startling arrogance. What is the Harper government’s approach to global affairs such that a staffer feels comfortable issuing such a blithely dismissive take on the major powers’ judgment? At a minimum, it points to the triumph of a domestically oriented “tough-on-thugs” swagger over an effort at realistically understanding other countries’ views and perceptions.

A second notable tweet appeared in response to media commentary by John Mundy, Canada’s most recent ambassador to Iran. An ongoing critic of the Harper government’s hostile approach, Mundy reiterated in an op-ed on Monday his view that the P5+1 diplomatic deal shows the error of Canada’s refusal to resume its own diplomatic relations with Iran. In response, Joseph Lavoie, the Prime Minister’s director of strategic communications, tweeted this remark (which was then retweeted by Rick Roth): “I always know @HonJohnBaird has struck the right tone on Iran when John Mundy disagrees with it.”

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The government’s relationship with its diplomatic corps, already on shaky ground, is hardly going to be improved by this outright attack from the PMO on the credibility of a former diplomat. And here again, this tweet from a staffer betrays the arrogance emanating from the Harper team about their own certitudes in face of those who think differently. When the Prime Minister’s representative gibes that the soundness of the government’s foreign policy is attested to by the disagreement of a respected former ambassador to the country in question, that’s more than just a flip comment. It’s to be taken seriously as a sign of the government’s scorn both for expert opinion and for the notion of democratic citizen commentary on its policies.

Is it fair to burden such short words and tweets with all this exegetical weight? Yes, given their consistency with wider patterns in the government’s blinkered foreign policy. And yes, given the questions currently circulating in Ottawa about what the attitudes and actions of Harper government staffers reveal about the great Oz behind the curtain. Duffygate doesn’t, thankfully, have anything directly to do with Iran that we know of thus far. But whether expressed through backroom deals or tweets, a thread of arrogance and detachment from outsiders’ perceptions ties them together.

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