The temperature of the west's relations with Iran is hot and getting hotter, and activists North America-wide are getting out their "No war on Iran" placards for a major mobilization this weekend (February 4).
The EU recently imposed sanctions on Iranian oil (to take effect in July), and this week U.S. director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. ratcheted up tensions when he charged that some Iranian leaders are now willing to conduct an attack on American soil.
Some suggest, given ongoing assassinations of atomic scientists in Iran, not to mention suspicious bombings there, and a malicious computer worm invading Iran's nuke network, that a secret war against that country has already begun.
So where is Canada in this gathering storm? Are Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay gearing up for more adventures abroad, and will Canadian ships be called upon for backup in the event of a frontal attack?
Certainly, Stephen Harper's language is getting tougher. A few months back, the feds imposed further sanctions on the supposedly nuclear-ambitious country, and just weeks ago the PM called Iran "the world's most serious threat to international peace and security."
It's speculation at this point, but some observers say they can easily imagine Canadian frigates participating in a U.S.-led naval blockade off the southern coast of Iran, in another war with an uncertain outcome.
The entire atmosphere "has the air of the pre-Iraq days - juicing up the intelligence to make it what you want it to say," says Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN and currently a fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo.
"Another Western war on a Muslim country would be unpredictable, negative and very dangerous," Heinbecker says, pointing out that there is a difference between Iran's "capability" of making nuclear weapons and producing them. The latter, he says, is "not evident," according to reliable U.S. and International Atomic Energy Agency intelligence estimates.
An air and sea attack on Iran would have enormous economic and geopolitical repercussions, and one worried Iran specialist, professor Houchang Hassan-Yari of Kingston's Royal Military College, warns that any attempt on Iranian atomic installations located in large centres like Tehran would lead to significant civilian casualties.
"When you have a very high level of rhetoric, discussions and threats and put all of those together, then you prepare your forces and [war] becomes inevitable," he says, adding that he's concerned there's no discussion about the possibility of conflict.
"The Canadian public in general, Parliament and the political parties do not debate these issues very publicly. They have a tendency to leave them to government."
Rob Huebert, a prof at the U of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies (closely tied to the Department of National Defence) and a naval enthusiast, says that while Canadian soldiers and fighter pilots get all the attention, it's our Navy, well integrated into the larger U.S. Naval monolith, that's most permanently prepared for new missions.
"The Navy is usually the first political instrument that governments - either Conservative or Liberal - send out," he says, "because it's always ready to go. I don't think there is a high probability that you'll see an actual use of force [in Iran]. But I do see it as a possibility."
Also, the U.S. Navy likes working with the Canadian Navy because of the latter's familiarity with the latest satellite communications tech, explains Dr. Paul Mitchell, a professor and naval technology expert at the Royal Military College.
The Canadian Navy kept pace with the Americans as part of U.S. manoeuvres from 2002 to 2007 in the Gulf of Oman, just south of Iran, he says. "This enabled Canada to take on a leadership role because we have the technical capability to talk to the high end (USN) as well as the low end (Greek navy) and share information between both sets."
Canadian warships are already intimately familiar with the Persian Gulf and the adjoining waterways, stemming from recent missions as part of the U.S. fleet in the Afghan and Iraq wars, where they monitored enemy coasts and intercepted vessels to search for smuggled weapons and contraband in anti-terrorism ops. Few appreciate the role of individual Canadian frigates in the Iraq war (Operation Altair), as solitary escorts for U.S. Navy carrier strike groups.
"I'd say Canada's naval involvement in the Iraq war was hidden behind a clever PR smokescreen that cast it as merely part of the publicly more acceptable Afghanistan mission," says Richard Sanders, co-coordinator of the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade
The special role of Canada's fleet was emphasized last fall, when the feds, who've otherwise set out to cut public spending, handed a $25 billion contract over 20 years to Halifax's Irving Shipbuilding to build combat ships.
"The Harper government captured the media and turned what should have a been serious story about the kind of Navy and Coast Guard we need into a breathless beauty pageant," says Michael Byers, a UBC international law prof. "The question is, do we need a Cold War navy in the early-to-mid 21st century?"