Sima Sahar Zerehi – When it comes to Iran, no news seems to be good news.  This month has been no exception with reports spreading about the confirmation of the death sentence of 35 year-old Iranian-Canadian web developer Saeed Malekpour by Iran’s Supreme Court the arrest of female journalists, Marzieh Rasouli and Parastoo Dokouhaki and photojournalist Sahamoddin Bourghani by Iranian security services. 

As the Iranian government escalates its targeting of internet users and journalists to stifle freedom of expression in the lead up to the Iranian parliamentary elections in March, we also see a move by Western governments to exert political pressure on Iran through newly created economic sanctions.

New Sanctions Against Iran

Following the examples of Canada, US and Britain, this past week the European Union also declared a new set of economic sanctions against Iran.  The new sanctions stipulate that members of the EU can no longer sign a contract to import crude oil or refined petroleum from Iran. All imports of Iranian oil and petroleum will cease as of July 1, a grace period that will allow for the termination of existing contracts.  The EU has also called for a number of financial restrictions against Iran including freezing assets held in Europe by the Iranian Central Bank.

These new economic sanctions are designed to make a significant impact on Iran’s already vulnerable economy.  The oil industry is the backbone of Iran’s economy, providing over 50 per cent of the national budget.  In the past year oil revenues generated approximately $90 billion for the Iranian government.  With the new sanctions in place Iran will lose the sale of nearly 600,000 barrels of oil per day to the EU, which works out to 24 percent of their total exports.

The effects of the sanctions on Iranian-Canadians

In Canada, economic sanctions against Iran have been in effect since November 2011.  With new restrictions placed on the transferring of funds from Iran to Canada, the impact of these sanctions on Iranian-Canadians is a hot topic of discussion amongst the community.

While some Iranian-Canadians are critiquing the sanctions as a “blunt” instrument used by the Canadian government to beat their war drums against Iran, many see the sanctions as the only means of exerting political pressure on the regime without turning to military intervention.

In speaking against the sanctions some Iranian-Canadian organizations have been calling for renewed efforts towards diplomatic relations between Canada and Iran, others believe that under the current conditions a dialogue would be unrealistic.

Iranian-Canadian community activist and organizer with Solidarity with Iran, Mehrdad Hariri explains, “For a dialogue to occur you need a partner to listen to.  Yes the Canadian government can be ready for dialogue with Iran but that can only happen in a situation where the Iranian government has freed someone like Saeed Malekpour or Hossein Derakhshan who continue to languish in Iranian prisons and face possible execution.  Negotiation can’t happen when Iran continues to violate human rights and suppress the freedom of expression.”

Arsalan Kahnemuyipour, an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto and member of the Toronto chapter of the Union for the Advancement of Secular Democracy in Iran (UASDI) explains, “The dominant view with respect to sanctions seems to have shifted amongst a large cross-section of Iranians both inside and outside the country.  The same groups who have remained in favour of a non-violent transition are now calling for increased political and economic pressure on the Iranian regime from international bodies.”

Hariri addresses the political impact of these sanctions, “The international pressure on the Iranian government is very important in strengthening the resistance within Iran.  I’m hearing this from activists in Iran. This is our role as the Iranian diaspora to mount the pressure through the activation of global governments to raise awareness about human rights violations.”

Weighing the pros and cons

Hariri explains, “Listening to the political activists from inside Iran is the key to evaluating the impact of global sanctions. Whenever there’s resistance there’s a cost. You can’t avoid fighting the regime because there’s a cost involved but the most important factor under consideration is the impact on the regime which is the reason many of us call for targeted sanctions rather than generalized sanctions that could have adverse effects on the people of Iran.”

Hariri stresses, “We also don’t want any military action against Iran firstly because as an Iranian I don’t want a foreign power to attack my homeland, but also from a strategic political vantage, I believe it would be in the interest of the Islamic regime if it was attacked, as it would help to consolidate its power.  So when looking at the alternatives these kinds of sanctions seem to be the best option currently available as they send a political message to Iran’s government with minimal adverse effects on the general population.”

Kahnemuyipour concurs, “Look there’s no third option, the choices before Western governments are simple: military intervention or economic sanctions. Therefore, economic sanctions seem to be inevitable. Our responsibility as concerned citizens is to ensure that the effect of these sanctions on ordinary people in particular Iranian-Canadians is minimized.”

Speaking to the impact of the sanctions on ordinary people Hariri notes, “The inconvenience of these sanctions on let’s say an Iranian-Canadian businessman is minor when compared to the political role of these global measures against the Iranian government. The support for the resistance in favour of human rights in Iran is the most important factor.”

The need for prior consultations

Hariri recounts efforts to liaise with the Canadian government in the lead up to the formation of these sanctions against Iran.

He explains, “Last year we tried to initiate this dialogue with the federal government via the circulation of a petition speaking to our desire for targeted sanctions against Iran.  Unfortunately, that dialogue did not take place.”

“Had we had the opportunity to sit down with the Canadian government to discuss the impact of the sanctions against Iran we would have been able to eliminate some of the miscommunication,” adds Hariri.

Kahnemuyipour echoes Hariri’s perspective on the need for more consultations with Iranian-Canadians, “That’s where there’s room for serious criticism of the Canadian government as they failed to conduct adequate consultations with the community in the lead up to the implementation of these measures.”

Lost in the shuffle

Richmond Hill MPP, Reza Moridi, who represents an area comprised of a significant population of Iranian-Canadian residents, also speaks to the need for dialogue.

He states, “In Canada we have large populations of international students from Iran who are here to learn and can only do so if they continue to receive financial support from their families back home.  In addition, we have many seniors who have joined their children and grandchildren in Canada in their golden years who also count on the transfer of funds from Iran to sustain them without burdening the Canadian economy.  We need greater consultation with the Iranian-Canadian community to identify these special cases and address them properly.”

Among those impacted by the sanctions are applicants for investor-class immigration to Canada from Iran.  The Canadian sanctions inadvertently put these applications in limbo.

According to the procedures of the Immigration Department, any investor-class applicant must guarantee to invest $800,000 in the Canadian economy.

The federal government has stressed that the sanctions will be in effect in all cases where the applicant is transferring funds to Canada from Iran for immigration reasons. However, Iranian citizens whose funds are held in other countries will still be allowed to apply under the Investor Class Program.

Iranians excluded from the investor class will be allowed to appeal for an exemption, which must be personally approved by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

Despite the appeal process, many applicants will be unable to proceed and will have no choice but to abandon their applications.

The possible loss of a large number of Iranian investor class immigrants will likely have an impact in Canada. Iranians comprise the fourth largest group of immigrant investors in Canada, and the second largest group of immigrant investors in Quebec.

Quebec received over 1,600 investor-class applications from Iranian citizens in 2010 alone.  In the past five years, Iranian investor-class applicants have contributed approximately $350 million to the Canadian economy.

Moridi warns that while efforts should be taken to ensure that ordinary Iranians seeking immigration status have an equal opportunity to apply for residency in Canada, measures should also be put in place to prevent agents of the Iranian regime from coming here.

He notes, “Our government should do political background checks to ensure the people coming to Canada have no ties to the regime.”