OTTAWA — For years, a group of Iranian Canadians held protests around Ottawa and elsewhere, stubbornly demanding the closure of the Iranian embassy and the severing of diplomatic ties.
They held another demonstration on Monday — this one a demonstration of affection, featuring a bouquet for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and an impromptu sort of conga line on the lawn in front of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
About three dozen members of different human rights and resistance groups were celebrating the government’s decision last week to eject Iranian diplomats and shutter the Canadian embassy in Tehran.
Iranian Canadians referred to it as a “nest” of terrorism. Their protests against the Iranian embassy reached a high point in 2003, after the death of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi in an Iranian prison.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told a news conference Monday that the decision to close the embassy and evacuate Canadian personnel had been in the works for a while, and that Canadian immigration offices in Iran had been shut down earlier.
“We closed our immigration bureau in Tehran a few months ago — frankly, I can say now, in anticipation of this decision with respect to the embassy,” Kenney said.
He repeated Baird’s point that since attacks on the British embassy in Iran last year, Canada’s ability to protect its embassy staff had grown ever more compromised.
“We could not with confidence keep that embassy open, given the need for security for our people.”
Those in Monday’s protest crowd rejected the criticism — levelled by some over the past week — that Canada is putting the lives of citizens arrested in Iran in more danger in the absence of any consular presence.
“We haven’t been able to achieve anything, even the smallest thing, to bring the body of (Kazemi) back to Canada,” said Shahram Golestaneh, with the Iranian Democratic Association.
“What else are we supposed to achieve with this regime? I believe this is a step in the right direction, maybe nine years late, but better than never…
“The very least that it does is send a signal to the oppressed Iranian people.”
Mah Etemadi said Iranian operatives connected to the embassy called her, asking if she wasn’t interested in returning home to Iran. Then the calls started to her family back home.
“When you’d refused, they go further, they harass your family inside Iran. Mostly it’s by phone calls, but if it goes further it’s capture and torture,” said Etemadi, a supporter of the National Council of Resistance.
Now the groups are focused on a new pitch to the federal government, and that’s to remove the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI) from its list of recognized terrorist organizations.
The PMOI had a tumultuous history, being one of the major actors in the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979. But eventually it became an enemy of the Islamic clerics that took control of the country, and many members fled into neighbouring Iraq to base its attacks on the regime.
The group was closely allied to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, and eventually earned the label of terrorist organization. But in recent years it has claimed to have renounced violence, and is portrayed itself as a resistance group. Many members are still based at a sort of refugee camp in Iraq, where there have been reports of abuse by Iraqi forces.
The delisting of the PMOI in the United States is an issue currently before the courts.
“Now that the government of Canada has done this for Canadian values, for universal values today, how about delisting the PMOI, right?” asked former MP David Kilgour, to loud cheers in the crowd.
Julie Carmichael, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, said a review of organizations on the list is undertaken every two years. The last review occurred in December 2010.
“Our government received a strong mandate to protect law-abiding Canadians from those who wish to harm us,” Carmichael said in an email.
“The Criminal Code terrorist entity listing process is an important tool in preventing horrific terrorist attacks from being carried out.”