02/14/2012 03:28 EST | Updated 04/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Trita Parsi, Iran Expert, Tells Stephen Harper To Dial Back 'Hysterical' Rhetoric On Nukes

OTTAWA - The Harper government's tough talk on Iran's nuclear ambitions is fuelling hysteria and boosting the likelihood of an armed conflict, an Iranian-born Middle East expert says.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, warned Tuesday that the vilification of Iran's leaders increases the likelihood of a war between Iran and Israel or its allies, including the United States.

Parsi, who has argued in favour of greater engagement with Iran, said recent remarks by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird amount to repeating talking points by the Israeli government or parroting the rhetoric of candidates in the U.S. Republican primaries.

Parsi is the second international observer within a week to take Canada's government to task for the nature of its anti-Iran posture. Last week, a former Clinton adviser and the head of Middle East policy for the International Crisis Group made the same point in an interview last week with The Canadian Press.

Harper has called Iran the greatest threat to world peace and predicted it would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons, while Baird has compared the Tehran regime to Nazi Germany.

Parsi noted the Obama administration has purposely tried to dial down inflammatory rhetoric in order to find a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear standoff with the West.

He also blamed Iran's mullahs for ratcheting up tensions through their own use of inflammatory language, but he said that doesn't mean Canada should abandon its traditional role as a pragmatic, moderate voice on the world stage.

"Canada is coming across as a little bit of an outlier, echoing some of the talking points of the Likud government in Israel right now," said Parsi, whose family was forced to flee Iran for political reasons when he was four years old.

"Bringing the issue to a level of hysteria does not make it easier to resolve. All it does is increase the likelihood that the only remaining options are confrontational ones. And I don't think that is to the benefit of anyone including the Israelis or the Canadians."

Parsi interviewed diplomats from the U.S. and Israel, among others, for his new book, 'A Single Roll of the Dice,' on Barack Obama's efforts to engage Iran diplomatically.

"The Iranians are not helping the situation in any shape or form. That is their contribution to the hysterical discourse," said Parsi.

"But to divine from that there would be an intent to use nuclear weapons, sounds to me more an exercise in faith than exercise in political science," said Parsi. "And in fact when talking to Israeli officials, they make it quite clear their real fear is not that the Iranians would use it, it's because of all the other consequences."

A nuclear-armed Iran would be much more confident and aggressive and would limit Israel's manoeuvrability, particularly when it comes to intervening militarily in Lebanon or the Palestinian territories, he said.

"The arguments that are being presented are that the Iranian government is suicidal. You can say a lot of things about the Iranian government, particularly its human rights record, but to say that it's suicidal begs the question: why have they, in the last 33 years, passed on the opportunity to commit suicide?

"On the contrary, you have a government that is dead-set on survival."

Roland Paris, the head of the University of Ottawa's foreign policy school, hosted Parsi on Tuesday. He questioned whether Harper is laying the ground work for preparing the Canadian public for taking part in an eventual military conflict with Iran.

"The question is: why at a moment when our closest ally, the United States, is counselling restraint and trying to use measured language about Iran, is the government of Canada using tendentious language and speculating about nightmare visions?" Paris said.

"It raises a red flag. It's highlighting a scenario where Iran would preemptively use nuclear weapons in an attack. If Iran is indeed suicidal, then it creates a possible need to militarily intervene to prevent Iran from acquiring that capability."