The Iranian government, through its embassy in Ottawa and various friendly or affiliated organizations, is aggressively reaching out to the Iranian diaspora in Canada, as well as to other potentially sympathetic Muslims in the country.
This July it is funding an “Iranian Students Convention” at the large and well-appointed NAV Centre in Cornwall, Ontario. According to the conference website, guests must be students and members of a “cultural community” or they will not be permitted to attend. Attendees will have their accommodation and meals paid for, as well as a portion of transportation costs.
“This platform is direly needed for achieving the ultimate goal of establishing a network of Iranian academics and professionals across Canada and more broadly across North America,” the conference website states. “Such a network will enable the Iranian academics to connect and share their knowledge and expertise to facilitate the professional growth of its members and play a leading role in serving the Iranian community abroad. This network will also help preserve and promote members’ Iranian identity and strengthen ties to their motherland.”
The website originally crediting the Montreal Toheed Society with planning the conference. This society, which was identified as “an independent network of Iranian students,” does not appear to have an online presence beyond the Cornwall conference. References to the society have now been removed from the conference website. An email and phone call to the address and number given on the conference website were not returned.
The conference’s major sponsor is Iran’s Higher Education Advisory (HEA), which is run out of the Iranian embassy. Hamid Moharrami, head of the HEA, told Maclean’s the organization exists to look after the needs of Iranian students in Canada. He said Toheed Society students organized the conference and the HEA is simply supporting them financially. He would not say how much money it is spending.
Moharrami is delivering one of the keynote speeches at the conference. Serge Villemure, director of the Scholarships and Fellowships Division at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, will give the other. A spokesperson for NSERC emailed a statement to Maclean’s: “When timing allows, NSERC is pleased to respond to invitations to speak to student groups about its programs.”
According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Canada forbids Iran from opening consulates or cultural centres outside of Ottawa. But this directive is not well enforced. Maclean’s exposed an Iranian embassy front in Toronto in 2010. And Hamid Mohammadi, cultural counselor at the Iranian embassy, said in an interview on an Iranian government website that the embassy’s work in Canada has included “establishing and strengthening new centres for Iranian studies and Farsi language” — as well as sending students and professor to Iran for courses; organizing art exhibitions and conferences; and equipping public universities in Iranian-populated areas with Farsi books.
The Iranian embassy in Canada also works through Iranian student groups at Canadian universities. On Friday, the embassy’s cultural centre is sponsoring a panel at York University on “Islam and the Challenges of Modernity.” The panel’s co-sponsors are the Thaqalayn Muslim Association, a York student group, and the Organization of Imam Reza Circle, which appears to have no online presence that is not linked to this event. Liyakat Takim, a professor of Islamic studies at McMaster University who has previously taken part in Iranian embassy-sponsored events, will speak on the panel.
The embassy is particularly active at Carleton University in Ottawa. The Iranian Cultural Association of Carleton University is led by Ehsan Mohammadi, son of Iranian diplomat Hamid Mohammadi. The embassy’s cultural centre regularly joins with the Carleton student group to co-sponsor events.
These ties upset some Iranian Canadians in Ottawa who fear that if they openly oppose the Iranian government, their anti-regime activities will be reported back to Tehran — endangering their families, and themselves should they return. “They’ve created a sense of fear,” one Iranian student at Carleton told Maclean’s.
Ehsan Mohammadi did not respond to an emailed interview request. A phone call to his number went unanswered.
Last fall the Iranian Cultural Association of Carleton University sponsored a panel discussion titled: “Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq: New Systems of Governance; Opportunities and Challenges.” Iranian Chargé d’Affaires Kambiz Sheikh-Hassani was on the panel. The Iranian embassy was not listed as an official sponsor, though the logo of its cultural centre appeared on promotional material for the event.
Four protesters disrupted the panel, holding up posters with the photos of Iranians they said had been beaten, jailed, tortured, and killed by Iranian authorities.
Among those protesting was Ali Tabatabaie, who is married to the daughter of prominent Iranian reformist Mostafa Tajzadeh. Iranian security officials later showed up at his wife’s family’s house in Tehran to summon Tabatabaie to court. Tabatabaie believes this was related to his public protest in Ottawa. He is now afraid to return to Iran.
“After the election, almost all my friends and family were arrested,” he says. His father-in-law, Mostafa Tajzadeh, is still in prison.
“You feel you have to do something for them, but you know you are far away and you can’t. Your family needs you, and you can’t do anything. It’s very difficult.”
NOTE: I’d like to thank Toronto journalist Arash Azizi for his work translating the Farsi source noted in this article, and others not cited, and for his help guiding me through the labyrinth of Iran’s government.