Dispatch | 'Bad Omen': Iranians at Home, Abroad on Canada Severing Relations
by ALI CHENAR
08 Sep 2012 04:01
"The Canadian government with one statement has changed the lives of many like me."[ dispatch ] On Friday, while attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Russia, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced to reporters that his government had listed Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism under the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act. Also citing the Iranian regime's continued support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its failure to comply with U.N. resolutions concerning its nuclear program, Baird announced that Canada was suspending diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic and expelling its diplomats. The Canadian Embassy in Iran has been closed and all Iranians interested in visiting Canada must now contact the embassy in Turkey, while an advisory has been issued warning against all travel by Canadians to Iran.
In his statement, Baird called the Iranian regime "among the world's worst violators of human rights"; Iranian Canadian human rights activists, such as Nazanin Afshin-Jam, wife of Defense Minister Peter MacKay, have previously called for the Islamic Republic's embassy in Ottawa to be closed. In an interview Friday, McGill University law professor Payam Akhavan asserted that the embassy had been responsible for the infiltration of the Iranian diaspora in the country and the harassment of regime opponents and rights activists. At the same time, he questioned the wisdom of entirely severing relations:
I think that at the very least, there should have been a downgrading of diplomatic relations. [But] I'm concerned that the closure of the embassy, both in Tehran and in Ottawa, and the termination of diplomatic relations may be going a bit too far because it will affect a lot of ordinary Iranian Canadians in adverse ways. We still have two Canadian Iranians on death row in Iran. [...]
And we have a context where there's talk of military conflict and increased tensions -- at which time diplomatic relations are very important.
In Tehran, the move came as a surprise to many Iranians with ties to Canada. "This does not make any sense," declares Said, 26, who had been planning to continue his graduate studies in the country. "I feel like an orphan."
Mahsa, a 32-year-old management consultant, had applied for an immigration visa. Her case was pending last summer when news broke that the Canadian Embassy's visa section had been shut down. "I have lost track of my documents; they must be in Ankara, I was told," she says. "After waiting for three years, I feel I am back to square one." She continues, with a mournful tone, "This is our fate as Iranians, I suppose. Anyone can ruin our plans. The Canadian government with one statement has changed the lives of many like me."
From halfway across the world, Babak, a 40-year-old Iranian Canadian, voices his frustration, recalling how TD Canada Trust earlier this year closed Iranian Canadians' bank accounts and cut off all financial services to them, suggesting that government sanctions were one of a "number of reasons." Babak says, "Then they came and apologized but they never told us why they closed those accounts and how they chose those individuals, many with no financial dealings with Iran."
As for Friday's actions, "I do not know why the Canadian government did this," he says. "When the Canadian government closed down the visa section in Tehran, the immigration officers told us that they did not know this would cause ordinary citizens any trouble." Now it seems to Babak that "the Canadian government was set on this course for a long time and hiding its true intentions even from its own citizens."
Asked about the human rights aspect of the decision, Babak responds, "I do not understand how this will improve the human rights situation in Iran. Many Iranians here are true human rights activists and they remain connected to Iran; this decision hurts them most because now they have to travel through third countries and there no direct link." He goes on to describe how the loss of consular services will make it much more difficult for Iranian Canadians to access or arrange for crucial documents such as birth certificates and powers of attorney.
Back in Iran, Mehdi, a journalist who keeps a close eye on the country's international relations, calls the move "a very bad omen." He echoes the point for emphasis. "This is a very bad sign. Things are moving in a very bad direction," he says. "The Canadian government and Canadian diplomacy played a significant role in Iran...a significant role in reducing the authorities' paranoia. Canada was never a colonial power and many here did not fear working with Canada." That will now change, in Mehdi's view. "When Canada, widely known as a peace-loving country, takes such a dramatic, unexpected step, everyone feels justified in worrying about the future."
While Baird told reporters, "Unequivocally, we have no information about a military strike on Iran," Mehdi, like many Iranians, is thinking about the possibility of armed conflict. Ali Reza, a businessman, hopes that the Canadian move prompts "the wise people" in the Iranian regime "to sit together and try to get things under control.... War is the most stupid and the most disastrous thing that might happen now." He vividly remembers the war with Iraq that dragged on through most of the 1980s and prays every night that peace prevails. He fears, however, for the future of Iran. "It seems everywhere there are more stupid people making the decisions."
Ali Chenar is a pen name for a Tehran Bureau correspondent.
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