Canada and the rest of NATO should stay out of Trump’s rogue Iranian affair

[See an updated version of this post on the Rideau Institute website. ]

Since launching his unspeakably irresponsible missile attack — resulting in the death of the second most senior figure in the Iranian government and that of a senior Iraqi commander — President Trump has called on NATO

to get much more involved in the Middle East process….

News reports suggested the ever eager-to-please NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was keen on the idea (although the careful statement issued by the NATO press office probably more accurately reflects the wariness that many member states would have of responding positively to such a request).

Here in Canada, the usually sensible former Senator (and Red Tory) Hugh Segal penned an abysmal (and pay-walled) Globe and Mail opinion piece arguing for Canada to seek NATO involvement:

It would be a serious path to restraint to make it perfectly clear [to Iran] that NATO would view a clear attack on the United States, its people, forces or homeland — be it kinetic, cyber or via terrorist proxy — as an act of aggression against all NATO members.

Aside from laying all of the blame for the current tensions on Iran, not the USA, Segal gives an overly broad interpretation of the collective defence obligation in Article 5 of the Treaty.  Article 6(1) of the North Atlantic Treaty reads as follows:

Article 6 (1)

For the purpose of Article 5, an armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack:

on the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America…, on the territory of or on the Islands under the jurisdiction of any of the Parties in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer;

on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories…. [emphasis added]

In other words, in plain English, an attack on American forces in the Middle East does not give rise to any collective defence obligation under Article 5.

In any event, the plain wording of Article 5 makes it clear that it is up to each and every NATO member state to determine the nature of its own sovereign response and any action by the Alliance as a whole requires the consent of each and every member.

But let’s get back to the merits of the issue — whether it makes sense for Canada, or any other NATO member, to heed the Trumpian call to stand behind him in his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. The answer is a resounding “no”, and we have Paul Heinbecker to thank for making this case so forcefully and eloquently.

I refer to his recent commentary, the well-penned words of a retired senior Canadian diplomat from the days when our foreign service had the experience, the character and the courage to give advice and options to the Government of Canada in our best interests. He writes:

while [NATO] membership requires loyalty to allies as dictated by Article 5 [on collective defence], it does not require blindness to rogue behaviour….

…we should not shrink from disagreeing with the Americans when we believe they are wrong any more than we should hesitate to agree with them when they are right. We should call them as we see them.

We did so on Iraq, and we were vindicated. We should do the same with Iran.

This must-read commentary is behind the Globe and Mail paywall and thus available there only to subscribers. However, with the kind permission of the author, we are including it in pdf format in its entirety.  Simply click on Ottawa does not need to blindly support the U.S. in its approach to Iran (Paul Heinbecker, special to the Globe and Mail on 8 January 2020, updated today).

A word on the terrible tragedy of the downed Ukrainian passenger plane with so many Canadians aboard.

We commend the Prime Minister for his measured approach to this point, especially the call for a thorough investigation. We also commend Iran for opening the investigation to Boeing Company, Canada, France, the Ukraine and the U.S.  and for agreeing to share the contents of the so-called “black boxes”, including the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.

We urge Canada to do everything it can to support the UN Secretary-General in his call for a peaceful resolution of the USA–Iran confrontation:

Stop escalation. Exercise maximum restraint. Restart dialogue. Renew international cooperation…. It is our common duty to make every effort to avoid a war in the Gulf that the world cannot afford. We must not forget the terrible human suffering caused by war. As always, ordinary people pay the highest price.

Rideau Institute President

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Tags: Article V, black box, Boeing Company, Canada, collective defence, Former Senator Hugh Segal, France, Globe and Mail, Iran, NATO, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Retired Ambassador Paul Heinbecker, Ukraine, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, USA, USA-Iran confrontation