Boycott missed the mark
Walking out on Ahmadinejad at the UN only played into his hands — a more subtle statement would have been more effective
The Canadian government’s decision to boycott the speech of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the United Nations General Assembly has been praised by the media, public commentators, and even the federal opposition as evidence of Canada’s leadership on the world stage.
While Ottawa should indeed be commended for voicing its rejection of Ahmadinejad’s disgusting attitude towards Israel and the West, his denial of the Holocaust, and the human rights record of the Iranian regime more generally, strategically, the decision to express these concerns through a boycott was questionable.
Had the government been thinking more about the impact of its actions on Iran (as opposed to the political support it was bound to receive at home or from its allies), it might have acted differently.
Iran is governed by the velayat faqih, a religious system on which the constitution rests. In matters of foreign policy, it is the Supreme Leader — not the president — who makes the final decisions.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad serves largely as the regime’s public face. He succeeds by drawing attention to Iran through provocative and inflammatory statements.
Far from being ignorant rantings, the president’s diatribes are targeted and premeditated. As a member of the Iranian leadership, Ahmadinejad is one of many cold and brilliant calculators who together have mastered the art of cultivating ambivalence ( taqiya).
On the one hand, the president’s rhetoric stimulates domestic pride and positions the Iranian regime as the leader of the revisionist states, a bloc of illiberal pariah nations. Speeches like the one to the General Assembly are typically well received in the Middle East, and Ahmadinejad is considered a hero by many in the Muslim world. At the same time, these same words encourage anger, and at times fear, among Iran’s perceived competitors and force world leaders to treat Teheran as a significant power.
The Canadian-led response to Ahmadinejad’s remarks to the General Assembly is a case in point.
The significance of the boycott in diplomatic terms has drawn excess attention to Iran around the world, while Ahmadinejad’s adamance in delivering his comments to a three-quarters empty General Assembly has undoubtedly enhanced his image among his base at home. To them, the West’s refusal to listen to what Teheran has to say reaffirms the need for Iran to position itself as a staunch defender of the interests of the revisionist powers.
Had Ottawa thought more closely about Iran’s diplomatic objectives, it might have resorted to what the late, longtime Canadian representative abroad John Holmes termed the “diplomatic insult.” Recalling his time as chargé d’affairs in Moscow during the early stages of the Cold War, Holmes often joked about how upsetting it was to the Soviets to have such a junior member of the Canadian foreign service acting as the country’s leading representative in their country. The suggestion that Moscow did not merit a more senior diplomat was the ultimate criticism of an insecure regime that used intimidation to keep its satellite states loyal.
This past Wednesday, the Canadian delegation to the United Nations should have assigned its most junior member to sit alone in the General Assembly during Ahmadinejad’s speech. Ottawa might have even included a particularly new and young official in its delegation specifically for this purpose.
The Canadian government should have encouraged its allies to act similarly, also stationing relatively insignificant and unknown staffers in the General Assembly when it was Iran’s turn to address the group. Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon might have even offered to host an informal meeting to discuss electoral reform at the same time to provide less courageous nations with diplomatic cover as they sent their senior members elsewhere.
The diplomatic message evident through this strategy — that Ahmadinejad and his absurdities were not worthy of significant international attention — would have been clear, yet Iran would not have been able to suggest that the West was unwilling to engage in dialogue. Moreover, Canada would have been praised for its diplomatic innovation, evoking memories of the creativity of the departmental mandarins of the 1940s and 1950s.
In summary, blunt force diplomacy has a purpose, but it should be used with caution. In this case, Canada’s interests might have been better served by taking a lesson from John Holmes and others who shared his commitment to strategic thinking.