Last week, three prominent members of the Iranian-Canadian community visited Ottawa to speak candidly and openly with the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Among the speakers were Ramin Jahanbegloo, Associate Professor of Political Science from the University of Toronto (via teleconference); and Ali Ehsassi and Kaveh Sharooz, both lawyers and former Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials. The session was chaired by Senator A. Raynell Andreychuk.
Topics included finding solutions to overcome the current looming crisis in Iran; how to help the citizens of Iran; ways to involve Iranian-Canadians, and the recent Mohamoud Reza Khavari case.
“We are witnessing an historic time in the world, especially as it relates to the changes in the Middle East,” said Jahanbegloo, who was the first to address the Senators. “Given the momentous political changes, it is important that we take a closer look at the state of democratic advertising and the violation of human rights in Iran.”
All three individuals made it a point to commend Canada on its stance towards the Iranian government.
“Canada is viewed favorably by a majority of Iranians,” stated Ehsassi. “Unlike many other countries, we are not saddled by the perception that we have ever engaged in political machinations in our dealings with Iran. To the contrary, one must commend Canadian diplomats in Iran for having established a fine tradition of spearheading worthy cultural initiatives.”
“Members of the Canadian Senate ought to be commended for speaking out so forcefully in recent months and championing the cases of a number of Iranian political prisoners,” Sharooz added. “This policy should be expanded within and beyond the Senate.”
Meanwhile, Jahanbegloo expressed support for Canada’s policy of denying admission to senior Iranian officials, encouraged the continuation to do so, as well as getting other countries on board to follow suit.
However, despite displaying measured endorsement of Canada’s actions, there were also suggestions that more can be done, and in some cases, different paths should be taken altogether. For instance, this country’s focus – as well as those of other western nations – has been to hone in on the nuclear issue. This is the wrong approach, according to at least one of the speakers.
“I am among those in the Iranian community in Canada who argue that human rights rather than the nuclear issue should be the focus of Canadian foreign policy,” said Jahanbegloo. “The Canadian government has been uniquely courageous in the past in holding Iran accountable for these gross violations. It can now more convincingly lead to the international community in responding to the human rights abuses in Iran by putting pressure on the Iranian regime to curb its criminal behavior.”
Kaveh Sharooz agreed with this assertion.
“I submit to you that the most effective way to bring about a positive change in Iran is [to] adopt the protection of human rights as the primary driver of Canada’s Iran policy,” he said. “Pursuing human rights protection for Iranians is not only the morally correct approach, but it also allows Canada to capitalize on core Canadian foreign policy strengths.”
Sharooz added, “Canada should close its doors to those with significant ties to the Iranian government and instead welcome Iranian activists fleeing persecution.”
Ali Ehsassi went a step further and compared Canada’s stance to the United States approach, whom he feels has done a better job in this respect.
“If I could compare that with the American approach, they have been responsible for consistently coupling their concern about nuclear weapons with highlighting how terrible the human rights situation in Iran is,” said Ehsassi. “In addition to that, I think they have been much more responsible in reaching out to Iranians in Iran and to Iranian -Americans.”
Sanctions placed on Iran have been the source of great worry and discussion among Iranian-Canadians, and Ehsassi touched upon this topic: “My personal view is that the sanctions introduced to date have been far too lenient on the top echelons of the Iranian regime and sweeping in their impact on the Iranian public.”
He went on to point out that while sanctions have had an impact on all Iranian citizens as well as many Iranian-Canadians, only 49 of the top members of the Islamic Republic have been blacklisted.
“Unlike the U.S. and the European Union, Canada has not linked any of its sanctions to human rights violations,” added Sharooz. “It is important that we impose travel bans and asset freezes for Iranian human rights violators, thus signaling that Canada will not allow human rights violations to go unpunished.”
“Closely connected to such sanctions, Canada should amend or consider amending its State Immunity Act to allow victims of Iran’s gross human rights violations to obtain civil redress here in Canada.”
Also discussed was the recent closure of the visa section at the Canadian embassy in Tehran.
“Another very recent decision that has caught the Iranian-Canadian community completely by surprise is the announcement that the Canadian embassy in Tehran will be closing its visa section and relocating to Ankara,” said Jahanbegloo. “As you can imagine, this will impose a very heavy burden on the relatives of many Iranian-Canadians.”
Mohammad Reza Khavari, whose name appeared in local circles around an embezzlement scandal that resulted in him owning a home in the Toronto area, was also prominently used as an example during the Senate talk. His potential connection to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was also brought up.
“Mr. Khavari, he was not an IRCG member himself, but the bank at which he was at the helm – which I should emphasize was the largest state owned bank in Iran – was very instrumental in providing funding to Iran’s terrorist activities around the region,” stated Ehsassi.
Also discussed was the role of Iranian students in Canadian institutions, and whether they are restricted to study here.
The Canadian Senate’s willingness to hear and discuss the views of prominent and well-tuned Iranian-Canadians is certainly a positive sign that this country’s leaders want to do the right thing. However, with the added dimension of geo-politics and a complex international environment, there is still a long way to go.