Canada’s Iranian Immigrants Could See Reprieve As EU Court Strikes Down SWIFT Embargo

A branch of Bank Saderat in South East Iran. In two rulings over the last week, the EU General Court found there was insufficient evidence that Bank Saderat and Bank Mellat, the two largest private banks in Iran, were involved in Iran’s nuclear program, and ordered the EU sanctions against them to be lifted

According to an article by Jon Matonis in Forbes, the General Court of the EU has ruled that European Union sanctions against two of Iran’s largest private banks, Bank Mellat and Bank Saderat, must be reversed, due to lack of evidence that they are involved in Iran’s nuclear program.

If the ruling stands, it would allow Iranian-Canadians to once again send and receive money to and from family members in Iran using the international banking system.

EU sanctions forced the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, to eject Iran from its global financial messaging service, which almost all bank wires around the world use.

It effectively isolated Iranians from the global financial system and prevented Iranian students from receiving money from their parents while studying in Canada, and Iranian-Canadians from sending money to elderly parents in Iran whose pensions have been hit by the devaluation of Iranian currency.

While many in the Iranian diaspora, including in Canada’s Iranian immigrant community, are critical of Iran’s current government and its human rights record, the sanctions against the country have drawn criticism for their unprecedented broadness, and the apparently exceptional treatment Iran is receiving among the world’s countries.

Many see the fact that even countries charged with committing genocide have been allowed to stay in the SWIFT financial network, while Iran was ejected, as evidence of a double standard against Iran, and an attitude that Iranian civilians are acceptable collateral damage to achieve geopolitical aims.

Their claims have been validated by some of the statements made by U.S. political representatives, like Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), who wrote in October 2010: “Critics also argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that.”

In a statement in December 2012, Canada’s Foreign Minister, John Baird, announced new Canadian sanctions targeting the Iranian economy:

“Canada’s measures also target economic sectors that indirectly support or provide funds for Iran’s nuclear program: oil and gas, mining, metals, and shipping. The amended regulations further isolate Iran from the global financial system.”

The sanctions include an exemption for transfers of $40,000 or less between family members in Canada and family members in Iran.

Ontario Judge Freezes Iran’s Canadian Embassy and Other Assets

The building on 245 Metcalfe St, Ottawa that housed the former Iranian embassy in Canada is one of three buildings frozen by an Ontario court (Google Maps)

A judge in Ontario has frozen three properties found to belong to Iran, including the building that housed Iran’s former embassy in Ottawa and Iran’s former cultural centre in Toronto, according to a story by the National Post:

Three properties were frozen, ensuring they are not sold or transferred, until court can decide whether they should be forfeited to the victim’s family to help satisfy the U.S. court award. The property is owned by the government of Iran or by an “alter ego” used “as a front” for Iran, court heard.

The injunction was requested by the family of Marla Bennett, an American who was killed in a terrorist attack at the Hebrew University in Israel while she was a student there in 2002, and who won a lawsuit in the U.S. against the Iranian government in 2007.

In the 2007 ruling, a U.S. court found that the Iranian government bore responsibility for the attack that killed Ms. Bennett because of support it has provided to Hamas, the group which carried out the attack, and ordered it to pay the plaintiffs nearly $13 million US. The lawyers representing the family have had difficulty collecting the money though due to the lack of seizable Iranian assets in the U.S., which has led to them turning their attention to Iranian assets in Canada and Canadian courts to enforce the U.S. judgement.

The presiding judge in the Canadian case, Justice Beth Allen, said that the plaintiffs made a convincing enough case at first glance to warrant a temporary injunction. No one appeared for Iran at the proceedings as is typical of the initial proceedings of lawsuits in the U.S. against the Iranian government.

Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act

Justice Allen cited the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, legislation recently passed by the Harper government, as providing support for the case that Canadian courts could enforce the U.S. court ruling on Iran.

The legislation designates countries on a Canadian list of states that the Foreign Affairs department deems to have “supported terrorism since 1985” as not enjoying the immunity from lawsuits granted by Canada’s State Immunity Act. Iran and Syria are the only countries in the world on the list.

The Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act has been criticized by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) for the potential it has to undermine the impartiality of the Canadian justice system by politicizing access to justice.

The CCLA has also expressed concern that by granting selective immunity to states, the legislation denies due process and equality before the law for victims of terrorist acts perpetrated by states not on the federal government’s list of states that have supported terrorism.

Iranian Immigrants Being Singled Out For Extra Scrutiny by Canadian Government

Iran's largest car manufacturer, Iran-Khodro, is one of the hundreds of companies sanctioned under Canada's Special Economic Measures Act (SEPA). An employment history with the firm can potentially cause difficulties for Iranians seeking to immigrate to Canada.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said this week that Iranians applying for immigration to Canada are being “rigorously” screened by the Canadian government for links to the Iranian political leadership.

Kenney cited the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), saying it bars any one linked to “the Iranian Revolutionary Guard … the Basij or senior members of the regime” from immigrating to Canada.

This week the Harper government placed Iran and Syria on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and section 34 of the IRPA which Kenney referred to deems members of organizations believed to be engaged in terrorism to be inadmissible to Canada.

A number of Iranian-Canadian human rights and dissident group activists have for years urged the Canadian government to prevent individuals linked to the Iranian regime from immigrating to Canada. They say that senior members of the Iranian government have managed immigrate to Canada and worry that they will be able to extend the reach of the Iranian government into Canada and intimidate Iranian-Canadians who oppose the regime.

Prominent Iranian-born human-rights activist and former Miss Canada Nazanin Afshin-Jam, who is married to Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay, said in July that the Iranian embassy in Ottawa should be shut down, saying it “has no purpose here” and is used to spread “propaganda”.

The Harper government has heeded their calls and put in place two rounds of sanctions against Iran, in July 2010 and November 2011, as well as shutting down the Iranian embassy in Canada and the Canadian embassy in Tehran and putting Iran on its list of state sponsors of terrorism this week.

The punitive actions have affected many with no links to the regime however. The closure of the Iranian embassy in Ottawa this week left thousands of Iranian students without consular services in Canada and no where to turn to receive them.

Likewise, Canadian economic sanctions, ostensibly put in place to prevent the Iranian government from funding its nuclear program, resulted in a major Canadian financial institution, TD Bank, shutting down the bank accounts of over 100 Iranian-Canadians.

It has also led to a few cases of Iranians with no relationship to the Iranian government having their application for immigration to Canada rejected in the last phase of the selection process. The reason given was that they had an employment history that included positions at companies sanctioned due to their links to the Iranian government.

For Iran’s professional class, avoiding employment at firms with links to the Iranian government is nearly impossible in some cases, as Iran’s government and Revolutionary Guard have major stakes in almost every large commercial entity in the country, so the effect of these sanctions is to prevent many of Iran’s best and brightest, who have no political links, and are seeking a better life in a new country, from being able to immigrate to Canada.

Would-be Iranian immigrants have also been facing extra difficulties in the immigration process due to the effects of financial sanctions imposed last year, which require any one wanting to send their money from Iran to Canada to first acquire a special permit from the federal government that can take any where from four to eight weeks to issue.

TD Bank Says it is Looking to Reverse Closure of Some Iranian-Canadians’ Accounts

TD Bank is looking to smooth over relations with the Iranian-Canadian community after it closed dozens of Iranian-Canadians' bank accounts. (Matthew G. Bisanz)

After a maelstrom of criticism for closing the bank accounts of dozens of Canadians of Iranian descent, in some cases with little to no explanation, TD Bank announced this week that it is looking to address the complaints and handle its enforcement of financial sanctions against Iran more delicately.

In an interview on Monday, a spokesman for TD Bank, Mohammed Nakhooda, said the bank realizes that the closure of the accounts had been “distressing and disruptive” and that it was looking to improve the way it communicates with its customers about the issue.

The Canadian financial institution said it would try to reach out to those affected and explain the cause of their account closure, and put in place a process whereby it would obtain more information from some affected clients to clarify their personal status and activities, and depending on the information obtained, re-open their accounts.

Letters sent up until recently, seen by media, from TD to customers to inform them of their account closing contained only a statement that the sanctions prohibit the bank from “providing any financial services to, or for the benefit of Iran, or any one in Iran” in the way of an explanation.

Iranian-Canadians Outraged as at least 100 Accounts Closed by TD Bank

View of Tehran, Iran at night. Being a party to a financial transaction to or from family in Iran was enough to get the accounts of some TD Bank customers closed. (Babak Farrokh)

After a report last week by the Ottawa Citizen detailing the case of several Iranian-Canadians who had their bank accounts closed by TD Bank with little to no explanation, it has emerged that the scale of the closures is much larger than the initial report indicated.

At least one hundred Canadians of Iranian descent have come forward in the last week reporting that they have had their accounts closed by TD, in an attempt by the financial institution to enforce economic sanctions against Iran put in place by the Harper government last year.

The Canadian government has had targeted sanctions on individuals tied the Iranian government since 2007, but new broad-based sanctions, enacted in November 2011 under the Special Economic Sanctions Act (SEPA), created a prohibition against any financial transaction by a Canadian resident or institution with any account at a financial institution in Iran, subject to a few exceptions, including personal remittances of values less than forty thousand dollars.

It has been left to each Canadian financial institution to interpret and decide how to comply with the new sanctions, and TD Bank has stated in letters to customers whose accounts it has closed that it believes the sanctions prohibit it from “providing any financial services to, or for the benefit of Iran, or any one in Iran”.

Many in the Iranian-Canadian community are furious about the closures. One affected TD customer, Pooya Sadeghi, created a Facebook page, Condemn TD Bank in their Treatment of clients with Iranian Background, after TD closed an account he shared with his wife and her parents.

On the Facebook page, a commenter, Nilofar Shidmehr, expressed her fear that Canadians of Iranian descent could be targeted by ethnic laws like those that affected Japanese-Canadians during World War 2:

We should do everything to stop this asap. Imagine what happens if there will be a war and the Canadian government sends us to an internment, like they sent Japanese-Canadians to. Is anyone knows some human rights organization which can help? I think this case can be considered as human rights abuse.

There was also blame put on the Harper government for the sanctions. “TD Bank is small potatoes. The real problem is Harper and his thugs in government who are behind all this,” commented Poyan Nahrvar.

In an interview with CICS News, Kaveh Shahrooz, a lawyer and vice-president of the Iranian Canadian Congress, and a harsh critic of the Iranian government, denounced the sanctions’ indiscriminate effect. “The Iranian government is a brutal regime that has killed many people in Iran, and to the extent that sanctions can prevent their agents from operating, we have no problem with that, but they need to differentiate between ordinary Iranians and regime agents.”

In regards to TD’s closure of customer accounts, Mr. Shahrooz said: “we believe [the sanctions] are being over-zealously applied.” The ICC is set to meet TD executives in about 10 days, at which point Mr. Shahrooz says they hope that TD will agree to put in place a process whereby the people affected can be told why their accounts were closed.