Canada and its Western allies have been thrust between “a rock and a hard place” in their relations with Iran, following revelations that an Iranian missile is believed to have shot down a Ukrainian aircraft near Tehran, killing all 176 passengers on board including 63 Canadians.
Citing intelligence from multiple sources on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters that evidence indicated the plane was struck by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.
Canada and its Western allies now face the difficult task of balancing a need to take a “strong stance” on the matter while not aggravating an already tense Iranian regime, said Christian Leuprecht, a political science professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University in Kingston. The European Union has been criticized for its slow response to the crisis that ignited last week after a U.S. air strike on Iraq killed Iran’s top military commander Qassem Suleimani.
After the attack, Iran said it would no longer abide by uranium enrichment limits in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal struck with the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia and China. However, Iran has not said it will withdraw from the regular inspections that are part of the deal – a provision Germany, the UK and France would badly like to salvage.
“If the allies are too harsh with Iran there is a risk they could abandon the deal altogether,” said Leuprecht. “At the same time Trump can point to this incident and say the Iranians can’t be trusted with any weapons. So these three powers really are between a rock and a hard place.”
Canada too faces a difficult challenge in addressing the crisis. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper closed Canada’s embassy in Iran in 2012 and expelled Iranian diplomats in Canada after the country was found to be in non-compliance with a UN Security Council resolution on its nuclear program. Italy took over as Canada’s voice in Iran.
Though the Liberals under Trudeau had indicated a willingness to re-establish diplomatic relations with Tehran in 2016, diplomatic ties were never renewed.
With no diplomatic presence in Iran, Canada now finds itself without the ability “to send a signal by closing an embassy or pulling diplomats,” Leuprecht said.
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“This is truly a dilemma in the philosophical sense,” he said. “There are no good options.”
At the same time, Ottawa faces the parallel problem of how to balance its need to remain close to its most important ally, the U.S., while refraining from adopting its hardline approach on the Iran nuclear deal and sanctions. Though not a signatory to the Iran nuclear deal, Canada loosened its economic sanctions on the country after its establishment. And despite its close ties to the U.S., Canada has shown greater alignment with the European approach to the country, which has emphasized political engagement and dialogue, said David Welch, an expert in foreign policy decision-making and international security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
“This is a familiar Catch-22 for Canada,” said Welch. “Of course it’s possible this could unite the West.”
Whatever happens will likely come down to how the Iranians respond to Trudeau’s demand for an investigation. If the Iranians stonewall Ottawa’s request for access to the crash site it will be up to Trudeau to set the tone for the response, which his European and American allies are almost certain to support, said Peter Rough, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C.
“Trudeau was careful not to call this an act of war or to denounce the Iranians,” said Rough. “He wants an investigation. But what if dialogue and engagement bears no fruit and Iran stonewalls him? Then the question is how does Trudeau play it? Everyone will be waiting for that and I would be shocked if they didn’t throw their support behind whatever he decides.”