In Surprising Move, Harper Gov Orders Expulsion of Iranian Diplomats and Closes Canada’s Embassy in Iran

The Harper government ordered the Canadian embassy in Tehran, Iran, picture above, to be closed and has given all Iranian diplomats five days to leave Ottawa, Canada.

In a surprise announcement today, the Harper government said that it is closing the Canadian embassy in Tehran and expelling all Iranian diplomats from Canada.

Many political commentators were puzzled by the abrupt decision, as there have been no recent public developments in the Iranian-Canadian relationship that seemingly could have motivated the move.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, a known anti-Iran hawk and supporter of Israel’s hard-line Likud government, said that “[Iran] routinely threatens the existence of Israel and engages in racist anti-Semitic rhetoric and incitement to genocide” to explain the cause of the closure. Baird also said the closure was motivated by worries about the safety of Canadian diplomats in Iran.

One potential explanation for the timing of the closure is that the Harper government is facing a deadline from the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, legislation it passed in March that makes countries on a special list exempt from immunity to lawsuits for culpability in terrorist attacks worldwide. The deadline for the compilation of that list was six months after the passing of the legislation, a date coming up next week.

Reacting to the news, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparst described the Harper government as having a “radical foreign policy” that placed Israel’s interests ahead of those of Canadians. A message on the website of the Embassy of Iran in Canada said:

“According to the hostile decision of the Canadian government, the Iranian embassy in Ottawa has been closed and inevitably any consulate services for fellow Iranians has stopped. Please avoid sending any consulate affairs documents. The Embassy is closed”

Many in Canada’s large Iranian-Canadian community expressed shock at the decision. The termination of diplomatic relations will affect the many Iranian-Canadians who regularly visit family in Iran by eliminating consular services on both sides of the trip.

Most Canadian consular services for Iranian nationals were already moved to the Embassy of Canada in Ankara, Turkey when the Visa and Immigration section of the Embassy of Canada in Tehran was closed in April, so the effect of the closure will be more pronounced for Iranian consular services in Canada than Canadian consular services in Iran.

Several Iranian pro-democracy activists also expressed concern about the termination of diplomatic contact as they said it would close off the most important avenue through which the Canadian government exerts pressure on the Iranian government to release Iranian-Canadian political prisons and commute death sentences.

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.