Canada is home to a large and engaged Iranian diaspora. It is divided and heartbroken but can still help Ottawa chart a path forward with Tehran.
A short drive north of Toronto, just above the Oak Ridges Moraine, lies the quiet and leafy suburban town of Aurora. Like most residential suburbs in Canada, the town is of limited interest to outsiders, and even most Torontonians are unlikely to make it this far up Yonge Street. But in the past few months, international television crews have regularly visited a dental practice there that has become an unlikely centre of attention, especially for the people of Iran, millions of whom can now recognize the face and voice of its resident dentist, Hamed Esmaeilion.
A year ago, Esmaeilion lived a different life. He shared his offices with his wife and fellow dentist, Parisa Eghbalian, and moonlighted as a writer of Persian prose. With their nine-year-old daughter, Reera, they lived between Canada and Iran, where he was recognized as a literary talent and had twice scooped up Iran’s top independent book award for his novels. The year 2020 was to be the tenth anniversary of their moving to Canada, a success story not unlike that of thousands of Iranian-Canadians who, in recent years, have left their homeland for Toronto and its northern suburbs.
But on January 8, 2020, Esmaeilion’s world changed forever in the course of 23 seconds. Two missiles shot by Iran brought down a Ukrainian passenger airliner that had left Tehran for Kyiv minutes earlier. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a behemoth militia that guards the Tehran regime, had been raining down missiles on American bases in Iraq to avenge the killing of its best-known commander, Qassem Soleimani. The Revolutionary Guards were careful not to kill a single American soldier so as to decrease the chance of further retaliation. But it didn’t care enough about the lives of ordinary Iranians to clear the skies of civilian planes. Apparently mistaking one of those civilian jetliners for an American war plane, Iranian forces fired the missiles and killed all 176 people on board, most of them Iranian-Canadians and others with connections to Canada who were headed to Toronto. Among them were Esmaeilion’s wife and daughter, Parisa and Reera.
The shooting down of Flight PS752 was a moment of immense national tragedy for both Iran and Canada. But, if in Canada the victims’ families had the full support of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who tearfully commemorated their loved ones, in Iran the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, didn’t offer an apology or show the slightest hint of remorse — a sharp contrast to the loud and public weeping he had done for Soleimani a few days earlier. Iran’s government had already faced mass protests in January 2018 and November 2019 as Iranians demonstrated against economic injustice and authoritarian rule. Now it had revealed its own massive and tragic incompetence.
In Esmaeilion, the families of Flight PS752 victims found a restless, raging and eloquent advocate. The talented writer lent his pen to a cry for justice, not just for his wife, daughter and 174 other innocent men, women and children who had perished, but for all those who were fed up with the wanton injustice and cruelty of the Iranian regime. His dental practice in Aurora became the base for an association of PS752 families. Esmaeilion himself had a simple demand: a fair trial in an international tribunal (like the International Court of Justice in the Hague) for those who shot down PS752. Already well-known as a novelist, Esmaeilion became a household name in Iran, admired for his devotion to the cause of the families and for standing up to the Tehran dictatorship.
Esmaeilion is inspired by the support he has received from ordinary citizens of both Iran and Canada, but he is despondent about the cold response of bodies such as the International Civil Aviation Organization, which happens to be based in Montreal.
“The reaction of international organizations has been very disappointing,” he tells me during a phone conversation in Persian. “All they care about is dry and state-centred legality, not justice. When we as grieving families go to them, they refer us back to the Islamic Republic. They don’t lift a finger.”
Esmaeilion is particularly unhappy that the downing of Flight PS752 has been classified as an accident.
“It was a crime,” he says. “But the international organizations allowed Iran to buy time. In contravention of all norms, Iran didn’t collaborate with Ukraine. It didn’t give up the black box for more than seven months. It didn’t give up any of the evidence it had from the ground. They’ve published five ludicrous reports and it doesn’t look like they’ll publish the final report by the allotted deadline, which is in about a month.”
“The saddest thing is that many have forgotten all about PS752,” he adds “Worst, they’ve accepted Iran’s narrative.”
Esmaeilion says that while many individual Canadians — of Iranian heritage or not — did all they could to support PS752 families, he expected much more from the Iranian-Canadian community as a whole.
“Every member of the Iranian community has to ask themselves what they did, not just about PS752, but about other crimes of the Islamic Republic. And they should ask what they can do so they don’t become its next victims.”
Tehranto and its tensions
Esmaeilion is one node in many threads that connect Iran and Canada. Home to at least 200,000 Iranian-born citizens and residents, Canada is a beacon on the map of the global Iranian diaspora. America, Britain, Germany or Sweden might host a similar or even higher number of Iranians, but in no country are the links between the resident Iranian community and the old country so strong, given the fact that many, like Esmaeilion, moved to Canada relatively recently. As much of Iran’s professional class flees increasing repression and economic decline at home, Canada has become a prime destination for those who have the skills or capital to afford migration.
The results are evident throughout Canadian society, and on a level far beyond the cliché of ethnic restaurants and supermarkets (although there is no shortage of those, either). The long list of Canadian universities, community clubs and professional associations who mourned Flight PS752 passengers is one indication. Another is the cultural entertainment options on offer in Toronto. On any given Saturday night, you can often choose between a film screening, poetry reading, political debate or a rock concert — all in Persian and catering to the Iranian community. For many this is not Toronto but Tehranto.
As with any community this large, Iranian-Canadians have their share of strife. In fact, what makes hanging out in Tehranto so surreally akin to being in Tehran is that many divisions in Iran are replicated here.
There are dissident writers, like Esmaeilion, but also those who favour Iran’s current authoritarian government. Many Iranians close to the government in Tehran, and their families, use Canada as a backyard. This is where they come to attend world-class universities, invest in real estate and attempt to establish a foothold close to the United States. In 2011, it was revealed that Ali Khavari, a former governor of Iran’s central bank who was the chief suspect in an embezzlement case involving a billion dollars, has Canadian citizenship and a ritzy home in Toronto’s famously rich Bridle Path, not far from where Celine Dion lives. Khavari has since become a symbol of Iranian elite’s corrupt presence in Canada.
Many of the divisions among Iranian-Canadians swirl around the Iranian Canadian Congress, a body which started as genuinely grassroots organization but that in recent years has been led by people who attack dissidents while remaining comparatively quiet about, say, the oppression of one of Iran’s largest religious minorities, the Baha’is. That’s why a group calling itself the “Change and Revival Campaign” contested recent ICC elections to its board of directors. The group believed the Iranian Canadian Congress should reflect the opinions of those opposed to the regime in Iran, too. Its supporters included Esmaeilion, punk rock musician Ramin Seyed-Emami (“King Raam”), former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister Reza Moridi and Amir Khadir, a former member of Quebec’s National Assembly and a founding leader of the far-left political party Quebec Solidaire. (Disclosure: I publicly supported the Change and Revival Campaign.)
Supporters of the status quo at the ICC, without identifying themselves by name, linked Change and Revival to Israel and compared it to Donald Trump — a strange charge given that Khadir, for example, once threw a shoe at a picture of then-U.S. president George W. Bush outside the American consulate in Montreal and has long supported Palestinian rights. They got a boost from failed Green Party candidate Dimitri Lascaris, who sent an email to supporters asking them to join the ICC to vote against a slate of “pro-sanctions and pro-regime-change elements on the right.” Lascaris noted that any adult resident of Canada can join the Iranian-Canadian Congress. Members don’t need to be Iranian.
The results, announced Sunday, were disappointing for those of us who wanted to see change at the ICC. Only one Change and Revival candidate, Mehrnoush Ahmadi, was elected to the ICC’s nine-member board of directors.
The divide in the Iranian-Canadian community isn’t simply between supporters and detractors of the Iranian government. Dissidents themselves also differ over tactics, strategies and politics.
Among the contentious issues is whether Canada should restore diplomatic relations with Iran. These were cut in 2012 by the government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was a close ally of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government in Israel and advocated a harsher line on Iran than any other western leader did at the time. Since leaving office, Harper has appeared in meetings organized by the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran, a military-political cult that opposes the Iranian regime but whose eclectic brand of Stalinism and Islamism is widely despised in Iran. It was listed as a terrorist organization by Canada from 2005 to 2012, until the Harper government delisted it just as it was closing down the Iranian embassy in Ottawa. In this, Harper’s tactics were a precursor to Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy on Iran, although on an obviously smaller scale. The 2012 move came after years of tensions, especially since the 2003 brutal killing of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi in Iranian custody.
But did cutting diplomatic ties help the cause of human rights in Iran or hinder them by further isolating Iran from the world? Wasn’t isolation exactly what the most conservative pro-regime elements in Iran wanted?
As a young Iranian activist living in Toronto at the time, I was very much part of that debate. I was, of course, wholly opposed to the regime that had barred me from visiting my homeland, ruined my country and would soon send my father, filmmaker Mostafa Azizi, to jail. (He’s been since released after spending about two years in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison and is back in Toronto.) But I didn’t believe cutting off relations helped the cause of democracy in Iran. If anything, it only helped to strengthen the more hardline elements of the regime.
Harper’s move was especially awkward as it was soon followed by Iran’s direct negotiations with the United States and a group of other powerful countries, which culminated in the Iran nuclear deal of 2015. Perhaps the signature foreign policy achievement of the Barack Obama administration, the agreement helped to limit Iran’s nuclear program and keep it away from weaponization. Talks leading to the deal were loudly opposed by U.S. Republican hawks, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Benjamin Netanyahu. This was strange company for Canada to keep, and Canadian diplomats privately groaned that Washington and its European partners were now doing what Ottawa had excelled at in the past: diplomacy over sabre rattling.
Justin Trudeau campaigned in 2015 on a pledge to restore diplomatic ties with Iran. Five years later, however, that commitment hasn’t amounted to anything, and it appears the Liberals are no longer pursuing it. Donald Trump, for his part, pulled America out of the nuclear deal in 2018.
Another way to pressure the Iranian government is through sanctions. Human rights advocates, including family members of Flight PS752 victims, often push for targeted ones. Sometimes called “Magnitsky-style” sanctions because they are named after Russian whistle-blow Sergei Magnitsky, these would allow Ottawa to freeze assets and impose travel restrictions on individual Iranians guilty of human rights violations and other crimes. Such measures have the support of Irwin Cotler, a former Liberal minister of justice who, since his retirement from Parliament in 2015, has dedicated much of his time to rights’ advocacy as founder and chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights. The Liberal government, however, has so far declined to use them.
Diplomacy and human rights
With the electoral defeat of Donald Trump and victory of Joe Biden, Trudeau will soon have a more kindred spirit in the White House. But Biden will find no easy path back to 2015, and he is sure to face many difficulties dealing with a regime that’s more isolated, harsher and belligerent than it was five years ago. Biden has promised to try to “walk the path of diplomacy” with Iran, and Iran, for all its tough talk — and anger over the recent assassination of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh — wants a return to the previous nuclear agreement and will likely negotiate. Given this new climate, what should Canada do?
Trudeau should remember that diplomacy and human rights advocacy need not be alternatives to each other. He could reverse Harper’s decision and reestablish diplomatic ties with Iran, as he promised. But he should also prevent the regime elite from making Canada their playground. He could impose Magnitsky-style sanctions on human rights violators without broader sanctions that hurt the general population and efforts by Iran to combat COVID-19. He could make it easier for Iranian students to study in Canada, and he could facilitate cultural and scientific exchanges with ordinary Iranians, therefore breaking the isolation favored by Iranian hardliners.
In developing its Iran policy, Trudeau can benefit from Canadians of Iranian descent. Trudeau should see the Iranian-Canadian community, with all its internal dissent, as a crucial asset. This most vigorous diasporic Iranian community in the world harbours an impressive array of academics, politicians, political activists and human rights advocates that could all be part of an effort to reformulate an Iran policy that both supports Biden’s coming diplomatic efforts and continues to stand up for human rights in Iran. Like anything to do with the Middle East, there is no easy path here for Canada. But few countries in the world are better suited to crafting an intelligent strategy regarding Iran than this one.