This week saw a turnaround in the Trudeau government’s approach to Iran as an unprecedented revolt against clerical rule that began three weeks ago showed no sign of slowing down.
The change began in Dartmouth, N.S., on Tuesday, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government would be taking stronger actions against members of the Iranian regime, “including ensuring that we go after them for any assets or homes that they have in Canada.”
Back in Ottawa, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Transport Minister Omar Alghabra attended a rally marking a thousand days since the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down Flight PS752, killing 55 Canadians and another 30 permanent residents.
Then on Friday, the government announced an entry ban on thousands of ranking members of the IRGC, although it fell short of the full terrorist listing activists were seeking.
The new approach was trumpeted on the government’s social media channels, but Conservatives have continued to push hard on Iran and tweet their exchanges with the government.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s full-throated embrace of Iran’s uprising has won him praise in the Iranian community. Poilievre personally attended and spoke at both Tuesday’s Ottawa rally and at a weekend march in Richmond Hill, Ont., attended by an estimated 50,000 people.
Trudeau, on the other hand, was criticized on Iranian social media for not appearing at any events related to Iran while finding time to go bungee-jumping in the Gatineau hills.
The Toronto Star criticized the Trudeau government, calling it “feeble” and “out of touch” on Iran.
‘Message got across loud and clear’
“In the last few days, I think [the federal Liberals] realized the facts on the ground have changed, and also I think they’ve seen reactions from Iranian Canadians,” said Kaveh Shahrooz, a lawyer who organized the march in Toronto. “The process of working with government is you keep pushing and eventually they give in to your demands.”
Shahrooz told CBC he’s aware the change of direction may have been motivated by Poilievre’s inroads with Iranian voters.
“I think that’s actually a very good thing, and that’s how democracy should work,” he said. “If one party is not being responsive to your demands, another party swoops in and speaks to your needs. And the argument I’ve tried to make to my own community, and I hope every other community follows suit, is, ‘Don’t let politicians take your vote for granted.’
“If a politician ignores your demands, consider what the other party is offering. And I think the message got across loud and clear to the Liberal Party this week.”
But Shahrooz also said he found Friday’s announcement of new sanctions on the IRGC misleading.
“I started feeling pretty happy when I first heard the word ‘terrorism’ being thrown around,” he said. “But upon further reflection, once I parsed the words a little more, I have to say I was a bit underwhelmed.
“The prime minister’s and deputy prime minister’s messaging seemed to suggest a terror listing when that’s not actually what’s being delivered. And I think once the community wakes up to that, there’s going to be some tough questions asked.”
The announcement did suggest that the Trudeau government has recognized what the Star called the “political risk” of alienating a large and successful community that is concentrated in suburban Toronto ridings such as Richmond Hill — where incumbent Liberal MP Majid Jowhari is already viewed by some in the Iranian-Canadian community as too close to the Islamic Republic regime.
Jowhari appeared at the rally for the families of Flight PS752 victims on Parliament Hill on Tuesday, but was prevented from speaking by organizers.
The government’s perceived inaction over the destruction of a civilian airliner full of people with ties to Canada has cost it support in the Iranian community, which has rallied around people like Shahin Moghaddam, who lost his wife Shakiba and their son Rosstin.
Moghaddam told CBC News the federal government has obstructed efforts to enforce an Ontario Superior Court ruling that concluded the attack was an act of terrorism by the IRGC and awarded $107 million to family members.
“I have rulings against the leader and five commanders from the Ontario Superior Court, but how can I enforce them?” he asked.
RCMP accused of inaction
Moghaddam said he also blames the government for the RCMP’s decision to not open a criminal investigation of the killings. Instead, the RCMP says it is assisting a Ukrainian investigation (the airliner belonged to a Ukrainian carrier).
“For the last three years they are just talking and no concrete action,” he told CBC News. “They put Russian leaders on the blacklist but nothing against Iranian leaders or IRGC.”
And he echoed others in the community who say the government has allowed Tehran to take advantage of Canada.
“Canada is a haven of those with Iranian regime ties,” Moghaddam said. “They use it for money laundering. People are coming with visitor visas and spending millions of dollars and no one is asking questions.”
Moghaddam and others say they want the Trudeau government to deploy stronger legal tools against the IRGC, including Magnitsky sanctions and terrorist listings.
The government has done a poor job of explaining its reluctance to list the entire IRGC as a terrorist entity, said Thomas Juneau, who specializes in the politics of the Middle East at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.
“The government has absolutely not been transparent in explaining why it has been doing certain things and why it has not been doing certain things,” he told CBC News. “And I don’t think there’s any good reason for that lack of transparency.
“In an ideal world, the government would provide written reports to Parliament where it would not only list its sanctions but provide some detail on their implementation.”
Some things would have to remain unsaid for reasons of privacy or national security, said Juneau, “but in a healthy democracy, there is a lot that could be said.”
Some of it, he acknowledged, might be “politically embarrassing.”
Identifying true bad actors is hard
If the government chose to be frank, said Juneau, it would have to explain that it lacks the technical capacity to enforce the kind of far-reaching sanctions that would be needed be to cover the IRGC — a group that “has had hundreds of thousands of members over the last 43 years.”
Canada already has listed the IRGC’s overseas expeditionary Qods Force, which fought in Syria, as a terrorist body. But IRGC also operates its own land, air and sea forces which operate in tandem with the Artesh, Iran’s regular army, navy and air force. Thousands of ordinary young people have been drafted into those forces over the years, without the option to say no.
WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announces new measures against Iran’s regime
The United States’ blanket designation of the IRGC as a terrorist entity, which makes no distinction between conscripts and volunteers, has led to families being separated. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has acknowledged that it has had little effect on IRGC’s senior leadership.
“The real bad guys have no intention of travelling here anyway,” he told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April.
Canadian sanctions lightly enforced
But the situation in Canada may be different. The Iranian community here argues that the real “bad guys” are entering the country already, and are even buying property.
Juneau said Canada should go after “senior officials who have permanent residency in Canada, or who visit Canada, or have assets in Canada, or are involved in money laundering in Canada, or … who pressure members of the Iranian diaspora to try to stop their human rights advocacy.”
“That’s a big problem and we have a much better chance of addressing that problem by targeted sanctions than through a sweeping sanction we have little real chance of enforcing,” he said. “Sanctions are a tool that the government uses to appease domestic constituencies, to try to send a signal that ‘we’re doing something’ without fully doing it.
“Canada already has a reputation for being very lax in terms of our implementation — not our declaration, but our implementation — of sanctions against Russia and others we’ve sanctioned over the years.”
Friday’s announcement of an additional $76 million for sanctions implementation was welcomed by experts as a sign that the government is finally getting serious about giving them real teeth.
“In theory, Friday’s announcement includes useful tools to try and counter these activities. In practice, the proof will be in the pudding,” said Juneau.
Former Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) officer Jessica Davis welcomed the new resources. “This is critically overdue. Financial crime in Canada has been underfunded for decades,” she said. “There are huge questions about how Canada, or even if Canada, is enforcing its sanctions.”
She said that targeted sanctions might well be more effective than a sweeping terror listing but questioned how the government proposed to carry out its promise to ban 10,000 Iranian officials.
“I would be very surprised if the Government of Canada has reliable information and biodata on ten thousand Iranian officials,” she told CBC News.
Ottawa lawyer Arghavan Gerami said that beyond keeping Iranian regime figures out of Canada, the Trudeau government should take action to ensure that ordinary Iranians, including dissidents, can continue to come in.
Gerami, who lived in Iran until the age of 12, has helped Afghan women escape the Taliban over the past year. She said Canadian immigration authorities have a pattern of closing the door to people coming from countries that are experiencing political turmoil.
Gerami said Venezuelan and Yemeni communities in Canada saw visa acceptance rates plummet when their home countries fell into strife. She said CBSA officers began to use their discretionary powers to bar family members, international students and others from entering Canada because they did not believe they would return home at the end of their permitted stays.
“If the government really wants to do something concrete,” said Gerami, “they can put in a public policy to temporarily waive that intention requirement under Section 25.2 [of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act].
“For Iranian women, this can really be a matter of life and death. They could systematically all be rejected for failing that requirement.”
Confusion over ‘Islamphobia’ hurts Iranian women
As the revolt in Iran shows no sign of abating, some in the Iranian community are claiming political correctness is undermining efforts to stand up for Iranian women.
Iranian feminist Masih Alinejad has been singled out as the instigator of the recent upheaval by the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It’s not the first time Khamenei has railed against Alinejad, who began the anti-hijab campaign “My Stealthy Freedom” eight years ago.
Last year, the FBI foiled a plot by Iranian intelligence agents to kidnap Alinejad in Brooklyn and spirit her by sea to Venezuela, where the Maduro government is a Tehran ally. This July, police arrested an Azerbaijani man with a loaded AK47 assault rifle who had been casing her home and had tried to get past her door.
Though she’s a target of the highest priority for Iran’s ultraconservative theocrats, Alinejad has said she also has to contend with western progressives who don’t want to talk about misogyny in the Middle East.
“They never go and live under Shariah laws,” she complained this week. “But they don’t even let us talk about our own experience.
“I grew up in a country where I was told that if you show your hair, you’re going to go to jail, you will get lashes, you will be killed like Mahsa Amini. But here they tell me, ‘Shhh, if you talk about this you’re going to cause Islamophobia.’
“Phobia is irrational, but believe me, my fear and the fear of millions of women in Iran and Afghanistan is rational.”
Conflating women’s rights with hate
Shahrooz said this helps explain why a government that trumpets a “feminist foreign policy” has been slow to get behind the most significant feminist uprising of modern times.
“Western feminists have been so concerned with their own issues here in the West that they’ve forgotten their sisters who are fighting far deeper and more violent misogyny than anything they face here,” he said.
“Of course we don’t want Muslims to be targeted for the fact that they hold certain beliefs. But criticizing those beliefs, and pointing out that those beliefs when implemented in various countries around the world have very negative and often lethal consequences for women? There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Shahrooz said the Trudeau government’s responses to political Islam are hampered by this kind of thinking.
“I think the government simply has not thought deeply enough about this issue,” he said. “I think the instinct is right — we want to protect Muslim people and allow them to have the same rights of religious belief as anyone else. That is a very Canadian thing to do. It’s the right thing to do.
“The problem is that the term Islamophobia conflates two very different concepts. One is prejudice toward Muslims, and that’s a bad thing. The other is criticism of Islam as a religion, as an ideology, as a political movement, and I think that’s absolutely fine. And for far too long, the Canadian government has allowed this conflation to happen and I hope that they will course-correct on this.”