Out of the shadows

Revealing the links between Tehran and a Carleton University student club

Out of the shadows

Alireza Sotakbar/Document Iran/Corbis

The president of the Iranian Cultural Association of Carleton University, a student group, has solicited money for the club from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s close friend and chief of staff.

Ehsan Mohammadi, the student group’s president, wrote Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei to ask for money to fund a celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, saying the student group would invite a wide variety of dignitaries, including diplomats and members of Canadian provincial and federal governments.

“Therefore, I humbly request that, at your approval and discretion, in addition to your moral support, please assist us financially to cover the cost of the event,” he wrote in the Sept. 27, 2011, letter. The letter was written in Farsi on paper displaying the logos of both Carleton University and the Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA), which oversees student groups at the university.

Homayoun Hamidi, a deputy director in the office of the president, subsequently sent at least two letters on Mashaei’s behalf to Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s minister of foreign affairs. One, dated Dec. 19, 2011, noted that a copy of Mohammadi’s letter was forwarded to Salehi so that he might follow up and take “necessary measures.”

Ehsan Mohammadi is the son of Hamid Mohammadi, who was Iran’s cultural counsellor at the Iranian embassy before all Iranian diplomats were ordered to leave Canada last week. That Ehsan Mohammadi felt he could directly ask for money from Iran’s office of the president shows just how close were ties between the Carleton University student group and the Iranian embassy.

Indeed, the status and future of Carleton’s Iranian Cultural Association are uncertain now that the Iranian embassy has been ordered to close. The embassy provided much of the student group’s funding and organizational support—though it is clear that Ehsan Mohammadi had no qualms about going directly to Tehran for money.

It is also possible that with the Iranian embassy shut down, Iran will rely more on the unofficial outposts it has established here, including co-opted student groups such as the one at Carleton.

While Iran’s ties with the Carleton club are particularly developed, they are not unique. In June, the embassy co-sponsored a panel at York University on “Islam and the Challenges of Modernity” with the Thaqalayn Muslim Association, a York student group. When faculty and students opposed to the Islamic Republic protested the embassy’s involvement, it was dropped as a sponsor.

The Iranian government has also tried to build ties with Iranians in Canada, as well as with other sympathetic Muslims, through mosques and schools, by funding and organizing conferences, and by offering prominent Iranian Canadians all-expenses-paid trips to Iran.

In 2008, the Iranian embassy founded the Center for Iranian Studies at 290 Sheppard Ave. W. in Toronto—supposedly an academic centre that hid its ties to the Iranian government while reaching out to Iranian students in Toronto with offers of assistance and funding for Farsi classes and cultural events.

Iran’s aspirations for Iranian immigrants in Canada, and for other Muslims here, do not appear to include integration, or even compliance with Canada’s system of governance. Speaking last year at the launch of a book by Zafar Bangash, a Muslim activist in Toronto, Kambiz Sheikh-Hassani, Iran’s now-expelled chargé d’affaires, told the audience:

“You live in Canada. Liberal democracy is not compatible with our way of life. We have to have our own type of governance. We call it, in Iran, Islamic Republic system of governance. Well, we have been trying to evolve it for 32 years. Has it been easy? Of course not. Is it working? Of course, yes. Because, definitely, we are stronger today, praise to God, from 32 years ago. So it is working. We have to work. It is a dire need of the Islamic world.”

Sheikh-Hassani described the Muslim prophet Muhammad as the first ruler of an Islamic state. “If we are able to learn from this part of his biography, God willing, we will be able to better govern our societies that [are] going to fall into the hands of Muslims, God willing, one by one.”

Mashaei—the man Ehsan Mohammadi hoped would fund the Carleton student group’s New Year’s celebration—is a controversial figure in Iran: powerful, yet despised by many of the country’s clerics.

The Islamic Republic was founded on the idea that the Mahdi, or the 12th Imam, was hidden by God in the ninth century but will return one day to redeem mankind. Until then, the theory goes, clerics should run things under a system of government known as the Guardianship of the Jurist. It is reputed in Iran that Mashaei and his supporters believe he has a direct link to the Hidden Imam, making the mullahs superfluous.

Ahmadinejad’s friendship with Mashaei has driven a wedge between the president and much of the country’s religious establishment, including Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But Ahmadinejad still keeps Mashaei close. The president’s son is married to Mashaei’s daughter. A confidential U.S. diplomatic cable, revealed by Wikileaks, reported speculation that Ahmadinejad was grooming Mashaei to succeed him.

Ehsan Mohammadi’s letter to Mashaei said the Iranian student club at Carleton was founded “with a mission to introduce and promote Iranian culture and has succeeded to take constructive steps to promote Iranian culture, art, science, religion and politics.”

In practice, the club has functioned as an extension of the Iranian embassy. The embassy frequently sponsored its events, and Sheikh-Hassani spoke at them. It gave no voice to Iranian dissidents and instead parroted the propaganda of the Iranian government in Tehran.

Earlier this year, it organized a conference honouring Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founding dictator. The conference provoked outrage from many Iranian Canadians who came to Canada specifically to escape the violence and repression of the system of government that Khomeini established.

Some Iranian students at Carleton who are opposed to the Iranian government worry that anti-regime activities they engage in at the university will be reported back to Tehran by members of the student association. “They have created a sense of fear,” one student told Maclean’s.

In the end, there was no gala Nowruz celebration at the National Arts Centre—though the Iranian Cultural Association of Carleton University organized a more modest affair at the university in March. A few dozen people attended, including Sheikh-Hassani and Hamid Mohammadi. André Plourde, Carleton’s dean of public affairs, spoke at the event, as did Yasir Naqvi, the Liberal MPP for Ottawa Centre.

Iran, however, has generously funded the Carleton student group. Maclean’s has seen the fall 2011 and winter 2012 budgets that the Iranian Cultural Association submitted to the Carleton students’ association. The budgets report more than $1,600 donated by the “Cultural Centre of Iran in Ottawa,” which is part of the Iranian embassy, and the Center for Iranian Studies, the Iranian embassy front in Toronto. It is unclear whether this money originated with Mashaei in Iran’s office of the president.

Even before Canada shuttered Iran’s embassy in Ottawa, it had adopted sanctions severely limiting financial transactions with Iran. A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird would not say whether a student group accepting money from the Iranian government violated Canada’s sanctions policy.

Steven Reid, a Carleton University spokesman, said the university does not have a policy that dictates whether outside organizations may fund student groups. He said each group is accountable to its members and, ultimately, to CUSA.

During the 2011-12 academic year, the Iranian Cultural Association also received more than $1,400 from CUSA, which is funded through student fees. Alexander Golovko, CUSA president, did not respond to interview requests.

Ehsan Mohammadi, president of the Iranian Cultural Association of Carleton University, was approached by Maclean’s but also declined comment.

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