Canadian defence minister urges 'de-escalation' of U.S.-Iran dispute
Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, center, attends a meeting of the North Atlantic Council in defense ministers session at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, June 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
OTTAWA -- Canada's defence minister is calling for calmer heads to prevail as a war of words between the U.S. and Iran threatens to turn into a war of bullets and bombs.
Such a conflict could easily spill over into Iraq and the surrounding region, where around 850 Canadian soldiers are deployed as part of the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
"What we would like to see is de-escalation of this and bring it back from a military conversation and back into the diplomatic sphere," Sajjan said in an interview with The Canadian Press from Brussels Thursday, where he was concluding two days of meetings with counterparts from across NATO.
The dispute revolves around U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from an agreement his predecessor Barack Obama signed with Iran that limits Iran's nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.
Iran has since been accused of attacking several oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and is on the verge of stockpiling more uranium than the agreement allowed. The U.S. has imposed new sanctions and launched a cyberattack on an Iranian militia.
The two sides appeared close to blows last week after Iran shot down a U.S. military drone. Trump said he nearly ordered retaliatory strikes against the country but reversed course after advisers told him those would kill 150 Iranians.
Fears nonetheless persist over the potential for a conflict, which would almost certainly have ramifications across the broader Middle East -- including in neighbouring Iraq, where Iran has a sizable influence.
Part of that influence comes from Iran's support for various Shia Muslim militia groups, which helped defeat the Sunni ISIL but owe their allegiance more to Tehran than Baghdad and could be a threat to western forces if war broke out.
While Sajjan expressed confidence about the safety of Canadian military personnel in the region, "nonetheless, from the military side, we'll be closely monitoring things to make sure our people remain safe."
The federal government this week announced Canada will lead a NATO training mission in Iraq until November 2020. That mission involves 250 Canadian Forces members who are working with Iraqi security forces.
Canada has another 600 troops in Iraq and across the region, including special-forces soldiers, medical personnel and helicopter crews in the country, air-transport crews in Kuwait and more trainers in Lebanon and Jordan.
Those troops are scheduled to stay in the area until March 2021.
While most of Canada's effort in Iraq involves working with Iraqi government forces, officials for Iraq's semi-independent Kurdish region have said they would also welcome Canadian military assistance.
Canadian special forces trained and advised the Kurdish peshmerga forces for three years in defending their region against ISIL before working together to free large swathes of territory from ISIL's grasp.
But Canada suspended and then ended its work with the peshmerga after an outbreak of violence between them and Iraqi government forces in October 2017 over control of oil-rich territory in the north of the country.
While Canada continues to have a good relationship with the Iraqi Kurds, Sajjan said the Canadian military has shifted its focus to working with Iraqi government forces.
"We worked with the (Kurds) very closely when it came to the defence of that region because that's where it was needed," he said.
"Now the support is actually needed within the Mosul region and the capacity-building that we're doing with (the Iraqi military). So the work that we're doing is situation-dependent."