THE STANDING SENATE COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND INTERNATIONAL TRADE
OTTAWA, Wednesday, May 16, 2012
The Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade met this day at 4:15 p.m. to examine and report on Canadian foreign policy regarding Iran, its implications, and other related matters.
Senator A. Raynell Andreychuk (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: Honourable senators, today we are continuing our examination on Canadian foreign policy regarding Iran, its implications and other related matters.
We are the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade. By way of video conference, we have from New York, representing Human Rights Watch, Mr. Faraz Sanei, Researcher, Middle East and North Africa Division; and from London, England, representing Amnesty International, Ms. Nassim Papayianni, Campaigner, East Gulf Team.
I will take you in the order that you are listed here. I will turn to Human Rights Watch and Mr. Sanei. Welcome to the committee. I trust you have an opening statement, and then I will turn to our second presenter before I look to questions from senators.
Faraz Sanei, Researcher, Middle East and North Africa Division, Human Rights Watch: Thank you very much. I wanted to thank the Senate members and the Foreign Affairs Committee for inviting me and my colleague from Amnesty International here to discuss the human rights situation in Iran today.
As mentioned, I am the Iran and Bahrain researcher for Human Rights Watch and have been covering Iran with Human Rights Watch for the last two-and-a-half years or so.
As a small disclaimer before I begin, both Ms. Papayianni and I will focus mostly on the human rights situation in Iran. We may touch briefly on some other issues that may be of interest to you, and we may be able to talk about them more in depth during the question and answer session, but the focus of our discussion will be the human rights situation in the country.
The overall human rights situation in Iran is extremely troubling at the moment. I think that many of our organizations see what is happening in Iran and the situation there as what it has probably been since the dark days of the 1980s. The obvious date that we can all point to in many ways is the 2009 elections. As you know, those were disputed presidential elections, and there was a massive crackdown that occurred afterwards by security and intelligence forces against a wide variety of individuals, mostly protestors, but also many individuals that had absolutely nothing to do with the protests. In many ways, the presidential elections of 2009 became an excuse for the government to launch a wide, massive crackdown against any and all dissent in the country.
That is something that I hope to discuss with you today, and I think my colleague from Amnesty International will also touch on many of these issues.
There are four major themes. I will basically give you an overall picture, and my colleague will go into more specifics on particular issues, specifically freedom of association, freedom of expression, use of the death penalty in Iran and freedom of assembly. These are issues that she will discuss.
From my perspective, as an overall assessment, there are four themes that I would like to highlight with regard to the situation of human rights in Iran today. One of them, as was mentioned, is the increased use of the death penalty. Last year alone, our organizations believe that at least 660 individuals were executed in Iran's prisons. That is a staggering number, and that is the largest number of executions we have seen in Iran in many years.
The second theme I would like to focus on is the criminalization of political dissent in the country. Since 2009, what we have seen is that the reformist movement, which was rather strong under former President Khatami in the late 1990s and early 2000s, is almost gone. When I say "gone," what I mean is that those political parties have essentially been dissolved or declared to be illegal or unlawful by the authorities in Iran.
Today, when we look at traces for individuals in parliamentary elections or even in the upcoming presidential elections, we see there is no presence of reformists. They are in prison, they are under threat and cannot participate actively in the country's politics or they have boycotted the elections because they do not see any future for the reformist movement currently as things stand in Iran.
The third theme I would like to discuss is the targeting of human rights defenders, which is particularly problematic for our organizations because those are the individuals that provide us with key information regarding the situation of human rights in the country. As you are probably aware, neither Human Rights Watch nor Amnesty International nor many of our other partner organizations are allowed inside the country, so we have to do our work remotely and we often rely on the information provided to us by human rights defenders.
One particular group of defenders of whose situation I would like to highlight are lawyers. My colleague will discuss this in more depth, but essentially defence lawyers in Iran who take on political and human rights cases have been under assault, especially since the June 2009 elections. We can go into that more in depth later on.
The fourth theme that I want to touch on is the lack of access to information. What we have seen since the 2009 crackdown in Iran is a large number of journalists who have been imprisoned in Iran. We have seen lots of jamming of foreign satellite feeds by the Iranian government. We have seen a massive campaign to filter websites. On top of that, we have seen a surveillance of activities of individuals electronically. We now have a Cyber Army in Iran that is not only involved in hacking into dissident websites internally, domestically and externally, but hacking into foreign government websites as well. It is also responsible for going after individuals via the Internet, essentially electronic droppings, to go after them and ensure their silence.
One thing I want to talk about is something that some of you may be interested in, which is the effect of the Arab Spring, as it is called, on the situation in Iran politically. As you know, since the Arab Spring began last year, the Iranian government has tried very much to co-opt what has happened in some of these countries, especially in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. They have had a massive propaganda campaign essentially supporting those popular movements.
Interestingly enough, Iran went through its own popular movement in 2009, and we all know what happened there. The Iranian government seems to differentiate between what happened in its country in 2009 and what is now happening in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and several other Arab countries.
In addition to this, there is the situation of Syria, which is going through another popular protest. We see this kind of double-faced policies of the Iranian government when it comes to the Arab revolts and the popular movements in Syria.
One quick thing that I would mention is the protests that took place last year, in February and March of 2011. My colleague will go into more detail about them, but there were massive demonstrations in support of the Arab uprisings and in support of Mousavi and Karroubi, the two former presidential candidates in the 2009 elections. In many ways, they are seen as the leaders of what is called the Green Movement in Iran. They called for protests. There were hundreds of thousands of individuals that came into the streets, but there was a massive crackdown, and many individuals were imprisoned; some are still in prison today.
One important note is that these leaders, Mahdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, as you probably know, are currently under house arrest in Iran, and they have been so since February of last year. What is interesting is that the Iranian government has not actually charged these individuals with any crime. As a matter of fact, they have acknowledged that they cannot charge them with any crimes politically speaking because there is massive support for them and they have lots of followers inside the country. Instead, they have put them under house arrest, and they have essentially been kept there with limited access to the outside world and to their own family members. I might add that it is not only the two of them; their wives and partners were also imprisoned, although Mahdi Karroubi's wife has since been released for various reasons.
One other note that I will make politically is that we had recent parliamentary elections in Iran, and the reformist movement was essentially absent from these parliamentary elections. Many of them boycotted the elections for many of the reasons I outlined before. As I mentioned, many reformists are in prison and cannot actually participate in the elections.
In addition to that, the Guardian Council essentially disqualified about one third of the candidates who would have liked to have run for the parliamentary elections based on very vague criteria that we can talk about during the question and answer session.
I now want to talk briefly about Iran's non-cooperation with UN mechanisms, which is important and something that you all should be interested in. There have been no Special Rapporteurs or UN experts that have been allowed to visit Iran since 2005. The Iranian government has said they have standing invitations to visit, but in fact, there have been requests made by many of these experts, and the Iranian government has not yet allowed any of them to visit. That is very important to note.
In 2010, there was a universal periodic review that looked comprehensively at Iran's human rights record. Many of the substantive recommendations made by the Canadian government and many other governments and member states of the United Nations were outright rejected by the Iranian government.
Last year, in November, there was a Human Rights Committee review of Iran's human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is the main human rights treaty that Iran is signatory to.
After 17 years, Iran finally submitted to review by the human rights committee. The committee came out with a scathing report based on Iran's noncooperation both with UN mechanisms and its deplorable human rights record, particularly since the 2009 crackdown.
In addition, the Secretary General has advanced several reports about Iran's human rights situation and there is a General Assembly resolution, which Canada has been a critical member in advancing and working on that General Assembly resolution for the last few years, which has brought attention to the situation of human rights in Iran.
I would say the most important development when it comes to the UN human rights mechanisms is the appointment of a special rapporteur, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, who is the former foreign minister of the Maldives, in March of 2011. As you know, he has already undertaken his work. He has put out two good reports on the situation of human rights in Iran. What is interesting about these reports is that despite the fact that Mr. Shaheed has not been granted access to Iran, and Iran has made it clear that they do not intend to grant him access, these reports have been based on testimonies. They are testimony-driven reports that been gathered and put together by the Office of the Special Rapporteur, Dr. Shaheed. That is important. His position has created for the first time since 2002, which is the last time we had a special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, the ability for Iranian civil society groups and human rights activists and victims of human rights, both inside and outside the country, to be able to actually go to a UN mechanism that they consider trustworthy and impart information that they have regarding the human rights situation in Iran. That is something that is extremely important. Thankfully, his mandate was recently renewed as of about two months ago, if I am not mistaken, in Geneva.
One final thing I would talk about with regard to Iran's non-cooperation with human rights mechanisms and the United Nations in general is that the Iranian government cares about its human rights record. In many ways, we may think they do not, but in fact they engage in a sophisticated, in some ways, PR campaign to prove to the United Nations, to OECHR and to many member states of the United Nations that are important to them that they care about human rights and that they are cooperating. In fact, many of the items that I just laid out before you prove that that is not the case. We can talk about these further if you have any questions about them.
I apologize if I have gone over my time. I will go through this quickly and then pass it over to my colleague at Amnesty International.
The Chair: Yes, if you could, because we want to leave time for questions and our other panelist, please.
Mr. Sanei: Absolutely. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and other organizations have done quite a lot of work on the situation of ethnic minorities in Iran. I will go into more detail during the question and answer session, to the extent that you are interested. We have documented many cases of abuses with the Iran's Kurdish minority, the Ahwazi Arab community, the Baloch community and the Azeris. I can talk more in depth about these later. We have also documented many cases of systematic abuses against religious minorities in Iran, which I am sure many Canadians are interested in and you may be interested in. In particular, the situation of Sunni Iranians, which comprise about 10 per cent of Iran's population, Sufis, Christian converts and the Baha'i, of course, which is something that many of you may be familiar with because there have been lots of refugees who have been Baha'is and have been resettled in Canada.
We have also focused on the situation of LGBT rights. In 2010, Human Rights Watch put out a report on the situation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Iranians.
The last thing I will mention is that we will be putting out a report in June or July of this year about the refugee situation in Iran. What has happened since 2009 and the crackdown has caused a steadily increasing number of refugees. I have gone to Turkey and to Northern Iraq to visit with many of these refugees, as have many other human rights organizations. Many of these incoming refugees and newly registered refugees are in fact civil society members, human rights organizations, human rights activists, journalists, and among them, many political activists and political dissidents as well. I have some statistics here that I can share with you later if you are interested in talking about the refugee situation. That impacts Canada, because Canada has taken a large number of Iranian refugees and resettled them over the last few years. Thank you very much.
The Chair: Thank you.
Nassim Papayianni, Campaigner, East Gulf Team, Amnesty International: I would like to start by saying thank you as well for inviting me here to speak as well as my colleague from Human Rights Watch. I would like to review a few issues related to human rights in Iran, specifically the use of the death penalty, restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly, aspects of the criminal justice and criminal procedure system that concern us, and lastly, to discuss a few cases that we know are of interest to Canada.
Beginning with the use of the death penalty in Iran, excluding China, Iran is the only country where Amnesty International confirms hundreds of executions every year. Furthermore, we believe that there are a large number of additional judicial kills not officially acknowledged by the authorities. Looking at the year 2011, in our records, we have confirmed 360 executions from judicial or state media sources. There are another —
The Chair: I am sorry to interrupt, but we have to interpret. I appreciate that I am condensing your presentations, but they are being interpreted. In fairness to our interpreters, if you could slow down a little, I would appreciate it. Thank you.
Ms. Papayianni: Of course.
I was saying that there were another 274 unconfirmed executions, but from credible sources. This brings our total to 634.
Moving to the scope of the death penalty, it can be applied for politically motivated or alleged politically motivated actions. One common offence is for Moharebeh, which would translate into enmity against God. We see this at times with alleged supported of the People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran, PMOI, a banned opposition group based in Iraq.
The death penalty is also used for drug-related offences. We issued a report in December 2011 outlining how the death penalty has been used for drug-related offences, which in 2011 composed a majority of executions. We believe this is tied. Of course, Iran has had a history of having trafficking and drug smuggling, and they have ongoing activities trying to address this issue. One way that they have addressed it last year was when the anti-narcotic law went into force in January 2011. This law had provisions which allowed for the death penalty for trafficking or possessing more than 30 grams of specified drugs. At least 488 people last year were executed for alleged drug offences.
There are many aspects of this law that are concerning, but one is the fact that reports indicate that these sentences are not having adequate right to appeal. Under this law, the right to appeal is permitted to the head of the Supreme Court or the Prosecutor General's Office. However, frequently these sentences are passed to the Prosecutor General's office to confirm, which denies an appeals process.
Also, the death penalty is permitted for what they criminalize adult consensual sexual relationships. There is an audiovisuals crime from 2008 that allows for the death penalty, and also what we classify as retribution. Under the death penalty, the state authorities say this is separate from law, under Islamic law.
Quickly addressing the secret, unannounced or unconfirmed executions that are not reported by the authorities, frequently also the condemned person's family and lawyer do not know about these executions. The prisoners themselves were told from local activists and are informed at times only hours before they are killed. This is despite the head of the judiciary denying in December 2011 that secret executions take place.
The death penalty also raises concerns about unfair trials. There is lack of access to effective legal counsel and, as I said, a lack of a real appeals process if you are prosecuted under the anti-narcotics law. There are televised confessions which are aired prior to trials taking place.
Individuals are frequently held in lengthy pre-trial detention, most of the time in solitary confinement, and lawyers do not receive 48-hours notification of their clients' pending executions, which contravenes Iranian state law.
Finally, there is the issue of the use of the death penalty for juvenile offenders, who we classify as individuals under the age of 18 at the time the crime was committed. Last year we had three confirmed executions of juvenile offenders, and there were another four reports that were unconfirmed. That brings it to seven.
Lastly, with respect to the death penalty, something that is concerning is the fact that the authorities use public executions. This year alone, we have recorded 19 public executions. They are hangings that take place on large construction cranes.
Moving on to restrictions that have been placed on freedom of expression, association and assembly, there are a number of laws that limit these rights. I will briefly try to go through them.
One is the law on audiovisual crimes, which extends the scope of the death penalty to some pornography-related activities, which I briefly mentioned before. There is the law on cybercrimes, which makes it illegal to write anti-filtering software and the training to use it. Quickly going back and touching on the Cyber Army and the Cyber Police, it was reported, in January of 2011, that they are now working effectively throughout the country. We have received reports that they have hacked into individuals' Facebook accounts and Facebook groups, which say, "Taken over by the Cyber Army."
Another way in which freedom of expression, association and assembly have been limited is the charges for offences that are akin to formation of or membership in a group whose intent is to harm state security. In this respect, if a group of individuals is working in civil society together, they can be charged with criminal activities under that law. Indeed, there is a bill before the parliament that we are concerned about that would require all NGOs to first register with the authorities and meet requirements that we believe would be very difficult for them to meet. It has not actually been signed by the president, so it is not in law yet.
Also, another issue related to freedom of expression is limits placed on academic freedoms and crackdowns in universities. While the right to education in Iran has been restricted for quite a while now, including banning students' access to higher education on account of their political activities or their faith — for example, the Baha'i communities — there is also the starred student system. The more stars you have, the more likely you will be to eventually be banned from pursuing higher education. There are also mandatory dress codes, as I am sure you are aware. When appearing in public, both men and women in Iran continue to have to adhere to a mandatory dress code enforced in law. In the summer months, when it becomes warm, the enforcement of these dress codes is more severe. We see more cases of it because people tend to want to be cool.
Finally, specific groups are targeted as a result of restrictions and limits placed on freedom of expression, association and assembly. One group is trade unions and trade unionists. Iran continues to ban the formation of independent trade unions, and we have seen a series of arrest of labour activists, particularly in the last several years. Most recently, just last month, Reza Shahabi was sentenced to six years imprisonment. He has been held in prison since September 2010, so he had a lengthy pre-trial detention. Presumably, he will be able to appeal, though he is effectively serving the sentence now.
As my colleague from Human Rights Watch discussed, lawyers have also been targeted, specifically members of the Centre for the Defenders of Human Rights, which was an NGO that was forcefully closed by the authorities in 2008. One of its founders was Shirin Ebadi. Most recently, a number of their lawyers and human rights defenders have been imprisoned. Late last month, Narges Mohammadi was called to serve her six-year prison sentence. She is the mother of two young children, and her husband is currently abroad. They are now being taken care of by family. Abdolfattah Soltani, a lawyer, has been held since his arrest in September 2011, and he was recently sentenced to 18 years in prison. Another founding member of the Centre for the Defenders of Human Rights, Mohammed Seyfzadeh, is serving a two-year sentence. Finally Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, who has been representing Youcef Nadarkhani, the Christian pastor who has been in the news, has been sentenced to nine-years of imprisonment, followed by a ban on practising law and working as a professor. We fear that he will soon be called to serve the sentence as well.
Another lawyer who has received a great deal of news coverage is Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer and mother of two, serving a six-year sentence in prison. She has been detained since September 2010. She has undertaken a number of hunger strikes protesting conditions of her imprisonment and has an appearance before an administrative court on the twentieth of this month, as part of a case to revoke her law licence, as well.
These are the groups that are targeted. How are they targeted? There are a number of ways the authorities target these groups. One is arbitrary arrest and detention, often without warrants, carried out by the ministry of intelligence. Security officials frequently arrest and detain government critics and opponents arbitrarily, holding them incommunicado, without access to their families, lawyers or medical care, for lengthy periods of time. There are poor prison conditions due to overcrowding, which lead to health problems, but then prisoners are frequently denied adequate medical care.
In June 2011, a member of Iran's parliament said that overcrowding was so severe that prisoners were sleeping on stairs.
Torture and ill-treatment are very common in detention, unfortunately, and they are routinely used to extract confessions, which are then used in court. Methods of torture and ill-treatment that have been reported to us by detainees include severe beatings, electric shock, confinement in small spaces, hanging upside down by the feet for long periods of time, and rape or threats of rape of both men and women, including with implements. Detainees are also subjected to death threats, including mock executions, threats of arrest and torture of family members, actual arrest of family members, deprivation of light or constant exposure to light, deprivation of food and water and deprivation of necessary medical care.
Another aspect of this is the lack of due process and unfair trials. The majority of trials in Iran are grossly unfair, particularly those that take place in the revolutionary courts. These are courts that prosecute national security offences, including offences under the anti-narcotics law, and they are frequently behind closed doors. There are show trials in Iran that are aired on television. Frequently, individuals do not have attorneys present. There is also the broad reach of the national security laws, which frequently will sentence prisoners on vaguely worded charges, like enmity against God or corruption on earth. Individuals also lack lawyers, access to effective legal representation or sufficient time to visit with their lawyers. Going quickly back to Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, who is representing Youcef Nadarkhani and Ebrahim Yazdi, if he were to be imprisoned, these are ongoing cases. They would lack legal representation unless they were able to retain another lawyer to represent them, which, in the current climate, has become difficult because there are not as many lawyers willing to take on these types of cases.
Finally, I will briefly speak about a few cases of individuals with ties to Canada. I am sure you are all aware of them, but, just to review, the first would be Saeed Malekpour, a Web programmer. He has been sentenced to death for insulting and desecrating Islam after a program he developed for uploading photos online was allegedly used to post pornographic images without his knowledge.
He has allegedly been tortured while in prison. He was held for over a year in solitary confinement in prison and the state television aired confessions that were extracted after torture. Most recently, after a three-month ban on family visits, his sister was able to visit him. At that time, she learned he had not known his sentence had been sent for implementation; he learned when his sister informed him.
Another individual is Hamid Ghasemi-Shall. He was sentenced to death for "enmity against God" in 2008 for alleged espionage and cooperation with the banned opposition group, the People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran, the PMOI. He was held in pretrial detention for 18 months, all in solitary confinement. During this time, he was repeatedly interrogated without access to legal representation and had stated under open letters that he was under extreme pressure to confess. His confession was used against him in court, which violates his right to a fair trial. His sister, Mahin Ghassemi-Shall, who has since died from a health condition, was threatened for arrest when she would speak out on her brother's behalf.
Last is Hossein Derakhshan, a prominent blogger — frequently referred to as Iran's "blogfather." He is credited with helping spark the initial surge in blogging in Iran, which is now popular. He did so by posting simple instructions in Persian on how to set up a site and begin writing online comments.
He was sentenced to 19 years imprisonment on vaguely-worded charges related to national security; for example, cooperating with hostile states, propaganda against the system, and insulting the holy sanctities. He was also detained without charge for 19 months prior to his trial and was denied access to his lawyer and regular visits from his family at this time.
That concludes the prepared remarks I have.
The Chair: I would like to thank both panellists for the detailed information that will be on the record. We have a few minutes for questions. I wanted to start out.
Mr. Sanei, you touched on the United Nations' mechanisms. You indicated that Iran cares about its human rights record. Is it because it can use its methodology and mechanisms to water down resolutions or to preclude any activity in the United Nations?
I go back to some 20 years ago, where they would not allow rapporteurs in. However, if there was a yielding of countries that do not normally join in with resolutions, but there is a movement by these countries to perhaps yield, saying that Iran's position is untenable for them. They then quickly say, "We will invite them in," and therefore the resolution either does not pass or gets watered down. Then, of course, the negotiations start that never end. Rapporteurs never enter the country.
We have known the difficulty in the United Nations' mechanisms to be effective in Iran. We have not been for 30 years.
What is different today, and what are you practically advising us that could be used within the UN mechanisms?
Mr. Sanei: Thank you very much for the important question. The reason I mention that Iran cares about its human rights record is that you will see that they will bring large delegations, if you attend some of the meetings, as I and my colleagues at Amnesty International have, whether it is the Human Rights Committee session last November in Geneva or the General Assembly session a couple of years ago. Frankly, over the last few years, the United Nations' record in terms of the number of documents that have come out criticizing Iran's human rights record and focusing on the deteriorating situation of human rights in Iran has been pretty good, I have to say.
There is only so much the United Nations can do on the human rights front. We all know that. One of the biggest and best steps that I mentioned is the creation of the special rapporteur. Iran is extremely unhappy that Ahmed Shaheed is a special rapporteur and they have tried every which way to ensure he does not have access to the information he needs. However, as I mentioned, he has been able to get that information, with the help of human rights organizations like our organizations. I think that is effective.
Again, you cannot underestimate the power or the connection that this position has created between the United Nations and its mechanisms and Iranian civil society, which, for many years now, has really felt completely alone. The nuclear issue gets a lot of play. There are sanctions with regard to the nuclear issue. However, when it comes to human rights, we do not see those types of things happening. I would argue that in the last two or three years, in particular, we have seen some of those things happening.
The other reason I think the Iranian government cares is that countries like Brazil, South Africa, India and Turkey, which is a neighbour, are rising powers in the world. What they say at the United Nations really matters, whether it is on the nuclear or the human rights issue. They have the ability to bring in lots of surrounding countries, whether it is in Asia, Africa for South Africa, Asia for India, and Turkey as well. A lot of their diplomacy now is addressed and geared towards those countries.
Our organization, and I believe Amnesty International and other organizations, has really now concentrated a lot of their advocacy to these countries: South Africa, India, Brazil and Turkey. That is not to say that countries like Canada, Australia, the United States and EU member states are not important. However, in many ways, they have been on board and some have even instituted these human rights sanctions or blacklisting of Iranian officials for human rights violations.
The other countries I mentioned, which are very important, rising powers, have not been on board. I think the Iranian government is sensitive to that and cares about what they say and what they think.
Senator Downe: I would like to elaborate a bit on the question the chair asked. Outside the UN, are there any countries in the world that have any influence on this government at all? Is there anyone they listen to and that can speak to them directly on this human rights record such that they would take some action because of the concern?
Mr. Sanei: That is why we have invested as much time and effort at Human Rights Watch to advocating in Brasilia, Ankara, Pretoria, and India. We believe these countries actually do have an effect and what they say matters to the Iranian government.
It is easy for the Iranian government to outright dismiss what Canada says. It is easy for them to dismiss what the United States says. It is not as easy for them to dismiss what India, Brazil, South Africa and Turkey say, partly because these countries have expansive and extensive trade relations and close political relations with the Iranian government.
We have seen some changes, thankfully, from some of these countries. For instance, there has been an indication that Brazil has changed. They voted for the Special Rapporteur and they have changed their vote recently on the General Assembly resolution on the situation of human rights in Iran.
Unfortunately, that has not been the situation for some of the other countries I have mentioned. However, I think once that starts to change, we will see a bit of a change in terms of the dynamic with regard to Iran and to what extent the international community can put pressure on them to change their behaviour when it comes to human rights.
Senator Downe: You have given detailed testimony about the people who have been imprisoned by this government. However, do you have any information about the population as a whole? It must be a suppressive society. There must be people ratting on each other and phoning tips into the security forces. How suppressed is the general population? Do you have any information on that at all?
Mr. Sanei: I can turn the microphone over to my colleague, if my colleague has any comments. I have a brief comment about that question.
Ms. Papayianni: I will make a few comments on that.
Currently there is a high rate of unemployment in Iran. I have figures for individuals who are 30 and under. The unemployment rate is reported to be near 40 per cent, if not 50 per cent. The economic situation for everyday Iranians is quite challenging, irrespective of the repressive expansion of the government. Frequently, they do not necessarily trust people that they do not know, so there are concerns that at all times your phone is being listened to, your computer is being monitored and most of your activities, to varying degrees, are also being monitored.
I do not know if there is an actual fear that they believe their fellow countrymen are reporting their activities. I believe the sense is that the monitoring is so close, that the state authorities are picking up on anything that is taking place.
It is a society in which people almost seem to live two lives, one with the government hanging over them as they do, and another in which they have access to satellites that broadcast shows from the Arab world, from North America and Europe as well, and frequently watch most of the same films, television shows and news broadcast that we do around the world. However, they do so with access to these things from the black market. In a way, it is a different kind of society, but one that works.
Mr. Sanei: I want to echo what my colleague mentioned. One thing I will say, and she touched on this as well, is that Iran is not North Korea. I would not consider Iran a totalitarian state in the sense that even though we have had a dramatic increase in the types of surveillance we have seen, especially since the June 2009 elections, and even though it has become much more difficult to access information from Iran, I would still say there is a civil society in Iran. In many ways it is a vibrant civil society, even more vibrant than in many places in the Middle East, in neighbouring countries. It is not a totalitarian dictatorship.
As my colleague mentioned, most Iranians are not afraid of their neighbours giving information to the state about them. This may happen; I am not saying that it does not happen. However, you do not have a huge number of individuals employed by security forces or the intelligence ministry. It is just that the intelligence ministry has become more efficient, effective and repressive, especially since 2009, in monitoring and surveilling citizens, and that of course has had an effect on the society at large.
Senator Downe: Does this civil society rise up and object in any meaningful way to the attempts of the government to obtain a nuclear bomb?
Mr. Sanei: The nuclear situation again is not something that our organizations focus on and is a complicated one in Iran. Honestly, I think you would not be surprised to hear that there are many Iranians for whom access to nuclear power and even access to nuclear weapons is a matter of national pride.
Then there are other Iranians who believe that there is no reason for the Iranian government to want to gain access to nuclear arms and weapons and that it is a complete waste of time for them to go down this path.
First, this is not an area that we focus on but, second, there are no statistics or popular opinion polls in Iran that gauge how the Iranian people and civil society feel about the nuclear issue in particular.
What I will say generally is that there is a civil society. The repression has been severe, especially since the 2009 elections and also following the February and March protests last year, but in many ways, the will for change and for reform in Iran is very much alive. That is an important message that I want to impart to you and the Senate Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade. There are individuals who risk their lives on a day-to-day basis, who stand up and speak out on behalf of the victims of human rights in Iran. They are continuing to do so, but the price they pay has become higher than it was during the 1990s and early 2000s.
Ms. Papayianni: I think that for many Iranians facing the level of oppression that we have been outlining today, it can be disconcerting that discussions of their country in diplomatic circles focus mainly on their nuclear program at the expense of human rights issues. I want to highlight that at this point.
Mr. Sanei: Absolutely.
Senator Fortin-Duplessis: First of all, Mr. Sanei and Ms. Papayianni, I want to thank you for your presentations. They were really quite interesting and very informative.
We are well aware that it can be very dangerous for activists and bloggers from Iran to get information from the Web. Internet access across the country is subject to numerous filters, and authorities closely monitor online activity. As you mentioned, Ms. Papayianni, the monitoring is so extensive that most Web users assume their email is being monitored by the government, and access to international information sites and popular social media such as Facebook and Twitter is very limited for those who depend on servers located in Iran.
Could you say a few words about the new measures adopted to limit people’s rights in Iran, the right to freedom of expression?
I would especially like you to tell me about this Cyber Army, which is obscure and tied to the Pasdaran, that is to say, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards who carry out attacks on websites in and outside Iran, particularly those of Twitter and Voice of America.
The Chair: Who would like to tackle that?
Ms. Papayianni: Certainly. The Cyber Army is believed to be affiliated and part of the Revolutionary Guards, though it is not confirmed that they are.
The way that some Iranians access information on the web is through proxy servers and virtual private networks, or VPNs, as they are frequently called. There is anti-filtering software that, for those who would like to learn, there is instruction found online on how to use this anti-filtering software to try to access other websites.
On a practical level, the way that the authorities control Internet access, the Internet is very slow in Iran. I have been told by many that it is similar to what dial-up was 10 or 15 years ago. When we at times receive videos that are recorded on mobile devices, we have been told that it can take up to eight to nine hours to upload a three-minute clip to send. What others do is put it on a USB stick and gives it to a friend or family member that might be traveling abroad. Once that family member or friend reaches Europe, for example, they will upload this video and send it to us or put it on You Tube, for example.
This is how Iranians address the fact that they have limited access to the Internet and what access they do have is heavily monitored. People have to use other methods, such as their email addresses. One system we sometimes use to obtain information is instead of sending an email, you put it in your drafts folder, and then we would have access to passwords and screen names to then read the drafts folder. That way, you are not sending information across the web.
I want to note that last month, the Iranian authorities stated that foreign email services such as Yahoo!, Gmail and MSN's Hotmail were illegal, effective immediately, in order to encourage or require Iranians to use domestic email services.
The authorities have been speaking in the past year about creating an intranet for Iran, which we fear is to replace the Internet, though they deny this and say it would run counter to the Internet.
Going quickly back to the Cyber Army, it is still such a new force that has been prevailing in the country, just really within the last year and a few months, that we do not have a great deal of information on how they work other than when they do take over a website, they sometimes leave their mark. They also have been hacking into some of the opposition websites. Most recently, last week, a website affiliated with the Green Movement was down for a period of time, though we do not know for certain it was the Cyber Army. It is suspected that it was. They are making their presence known more and more.
The Chair: Thank you. Could I put you on a second round? That was a long question and answer, and I want to get Senator Frum in and then come back to you.
Senator Frum: Mr. Sanei, you made reference to the fact that it is easy for Iran to dismiss what Canada thinks about the human rights situation. Ms. Papayianni, you did a good job of explaining the situation of the three Canadian residents who are in prison in Iran right now. I guess I am appealing to you to help us understand, as Canadian parliamentarians thinking about these citizens of ours, what we can do. When it looked like the execution warrant onSaeed Malekpour was going to be put through, our foreign minister spoke out extremely forcefully, and it appears that Malekpour is still with us, thank goodness. Can we put any stock into that kind of action by the foreign minister and those kinds of statements by our parliamentarians? It was parliamentarians from all sides who spoke out. Do these statements or actions have any effect on the regime at all?
Mr. Sanei: I think they do. I would encourage Canada and the foreign ministry and others to continue to put out statements — and they should — in support and in defence of Canadian residents and citizens who are in Iranian prisons. I in no way meant to suggest that you should not do these things.
Our organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and many other organizations that work on these cases, have mentioned Mr.Malekpour in numerous press releases. There have been online petitions and many ways that the names of these individuals and many others dual nationals who had been in prison before are mentioned.
By the way, I should mention they have been deprived oftentimes of access to the embassies in Iran, because under the Vienna Consular Relations, foreign citizens or dual citizens should have access to their embassy staff, but oftentimes this does not happen in Iran. These are some of the international legal violations that our organizations bring up, in addition to the violations of international human rights law, and many times Iran's own domestic laws are violated when it comes to the pretrial detention, lack of lawyers and many other things. I would continue to encourage the Canadian government to speak out on these issues, and they should, but other voices should also be doing the same thing.
To the extent that our organizations have tried, I think we will continue to speak out behalf of the individuals that you mentioned and other dual nationals who are currently in prison in Iraq.
Senator Frum: I appreciate the suggestion is not that we not do it. I was curious to understand the political calculations that are made by the regime when they make a decision to proceed with abuses of Canadian residents and citizens, or not. What kind of political calculations are there, Ms. Papayianni?
Ms. Papayianni: With respect to quickly addressing what parliamentarians can do in addition to speaking out, which I would have to echo what my colleague from Human Rights Watch said, it is helpful, our position is that in just about every case, it assists someone's case to have it spoken out in the public, whether it is by people taking action, the parliamentarians speaking out, making statements, giving interviews or discussing cases. This all, in the long run, helps most cases most of the time.
One other avenue of campaigning that we have pursued with key issues is we had certain governments lobby others to press Iran on certain things. For example, we mentioned that Turkey and Iran have close relations. We had some experience that has been positive in having Turkey lobby on trade union rights to the Iranian authorities, because in Turkey that is also a big issue. There are certain strategic things that I think governments can do if they cannot be necessarily in front discussing what is going on. There are lots of back-door opportunities to be had in putting pressure on your counterparts in different countries, whether it is on an issue or a particular case to speak out.
I would not say that we have any information saying clearly that the authorities target individuals who have Canadian nationality or are residents of Canada, so I would not be able to speak to that question, if that is why they have been targeted. I think that whatSaeed Malekpour and Ghassemi-Shall have in common is that they are individuals who were introducing or pioneering an element of Internet technology and making it accessible to Iranians across the country, whether it was by developing a program that uploaded photos at the time. It is common now, but at the time it was not so common, or introducing how individuals can creates blogs on their own and broadcast their opinions. These are things the authorities fear. I imagine that part of why they were targeted, if that was not the reason, was because they were able to give a greater voice to Iranians with simple methods that, at the time, were mostly accessible only in English or most accessible in North America or in Europe, or not as accessible in Iran at the time.
The Chair: We have run out of time. If I understand your submission to us, by highlighting our cases, whether they are Canadian cases or others, we do not make the victims of the Iranian regime any more vulnerable. If they are more vulnerable, I think I heard you say, Mr. Sanei, that over the last number of years they know the consequences of speaking out and that the civil society has undertaken to take greater risk. Therefore, we are not exposing them when we identify them and talk about their cases. Their repression does not get any worse or, if it does, they know that that will happen. Our linkages to voice concerns about them come from some source. I am concerned that we not make them even more vulnerable without them knowing the consequences.
Mr. Sanei: The general rule is what my colleague Ms. Papayianni said. The assumption that we operate on at Human Rights Watch and at many of the other organizations is that you speak out on behalf of these individuals. If their name is mentioned or if it is in the process, overall it helps them.
Having said that, when we decide to publicize a case as a human rights organization, we oftentimes have contacts with their family members and we ask them. Ultimately, it is the family members and the victims who have to make the decision as to whether or not it helps or hurts their case and whether they want these things publicized. Not everyone has the ability to contact family members. Governments oftentimes do not have that ability. When a government decides for various reasons to publicize a case, one of the most important things will be to ensure that the information that they are publicizing is accurate. That is something that should always be the case, whether it is human rights organizations publicizing these cases and speaking out on behalf of human rights victims, or it is governments or other individuals who do it. That is just a golden rule that we should always abide by.
As I mentioned, it is not always possible for us to contact family members and say, "Would you like your name used?" You have to make decisions. You have to know the situation of these victims and, ultimately, if you do not have access to the family members and the victims themselves, decide whether it will help or hurt their case. That is a difficult decision to make, honestly, but we try as best we can.
Ms. Papayianni: Just to clarify, in cases that we have taken action on publicly — in just about every one of them — we have had some sort of consent from a family member or their legal representative to speak out about their case.
Frequently, we are told details about cases, but we are informed that we cannot share those with the public because it would too clearly tie that information to an individual family member. There is no problem speaking about the case; it is more about withholding certain information that can be traced back to an aunt, uncle or loved one in Iran. It is difficult for us, at times, to make contact with family members. I can imagine that it would be even more challenging for parliamentarians to do so, but it would be important. I think that if there is information or there are interviews out about family members, giving interviews is an indication that probably speaking out about them would be fine.
The Chair: I would like to thank you, Mr. Sanei and Ms. Papayianni, for your testimony today and the detail on the human rights perspectives, to date, in Iran. Governments often have to rely on responsible organizations who work, day by day, in the countries. Certainly, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have a long-standing record of responsible monitoring of Iran, and we thank you for being their representatives today.
We now have our second panel as we continue to examine and report on Canadian foreign policy regarding Iran, its implications and other related matters. This part will feature the Iranian Canadian Congress, represented by Farrokh Zandi, President, and Samad Assadpour, Secretary of the Board of Directors.
I believe there is only one presentation. I encourage you to keep it as short as you can so that all senators will be able to enter into the question period, which allows all of us to put our concerns on the table. Welcome to the committee. We are waiting to hear your comments with respect to our study. I think Mr. Zandi will make the presentation. Welcome.
Farrokh Zandi, President, Iranian Canadian Congress: Honourable senators, thank you for inviting us here today. I am joined by Samad Assadpour, Secretary of the Board of Directors of the Iranian Canadian Congress. Please consider this as our joint opening statement.
The Iranian Canadian Congress, ICC, represents the Iranian Canadian community. The ICC is a not-for-profit, non-partisan and non-religious organization, committed to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The ICC does not represent the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, nor does it advocate for its supporters. The majority of the people of Iran stand apart from the Islamic republic of Iran, which is one of the worst human rights abusers in the world.
Since the 2009 Iranian presidential election, an election widely perceived as fraudulent, there has been a dramatic increase in Iranian state repression. Iranians who oppose the clerical-led regime are routinely harassed, jailed, tortured, raped and executed.
Today, the Iranian regime faces great challenges. It has lost much of its legitimacy since the 2009 election and is internally divided. Moreover, it is increasingly unable to meet the political and economic aspirations of its own people. Its survival as a cohesive and functioning regime is hardly guaranteed.
More important, the Iranian regime remains vulnerable to the very same domestic forces that have led to the toppling of dictatorships across the Arab world. Although the regime may have been successful in silencing the movement for now, it has not been able to crush Iranian aspirations for a more free and democratic form of government. Despite brutal repression, this movement represented a major shift that seriously undermined the legitimacy and future prospects of the Islamic regime. What is becoming abundantly clear is that the regime in Iran merely seeks to bolster its power, not the causes it espouses or the slogans it trumpets.
Recent revelations of massive corruption in Iran, including banking embezzlements by individuals closely tied to the regime, show that the Islamic Republic has deviated from its self-described mission of erasing the social inequality that existed under the monarchy. Iran today is a nation of "haves" and "have nots."
How should Canada craft a just and effective foreign policy towards Iran? Given the deplorable and deteriorating human rights situation in Iran, our urgent priority should be to pursue sanctions against the Iranian government, entities and individuals who commit human rights abuses. Canada should work openly through channels to enable Iranian moderates and reformers to communicate with the Iranian people, as well as showing strong public support of Iranian and international efforts to report on human rights abuses.
Honourable senators, if we are serious about dealing with the Iranian threat, we must focus on the entire apparatus of the regime, including its doers and facilitators. At the heart of this list is IRGC, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This entity is not only in charge of Iran's nuclear program; it is also responsible for severe human rights violations and also for the 2009 violent suppression of Iranian protesters. It also trains and finances terrorist organizations like al Qaeda. The IRGC is the spine of the Iranian regime and we must not tolerate any interaction with the organization. Blacklisting this entity and its senior officials diminishes its legitimacy, as well as that of the Iranian regime. It also provides important moral support to Iranian dissidents who may feel isolated and alone in their efforts to effect change within the country.
However, Canada's current sanctions under the Special Economic Measures Act, which targets many individuals and entities, including some associated with the IRGC, have been imposed in response to Iran's nuclear activity. We believe that human rights rather than the nuclear issue should be the focus of foreign policy. We believe that the Government of Canada should target those who are found responsible for crimes against humanity by putting travel bans on them and freezing their assets.
Even if Iran were to cease its illegal nuclear program tomorrow, it would not alter the fact that the government of the Islamic Republic has a hefty budget for international terrorism that is channelled through the IRGC. It also does not address the IRGC's most flagrant violation of human rights in recent memory.
Canada needs to use every non-military tool in its tool kit at this critical time, and that includes listing the IRGC as a whole, as well as individual senior commanders and members, as terrorist entities in Canada.
We do, however, support the sanctions put forth by the government on Iran's nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programs.
Recently, the United States has begun a shift in this direction, putting a greater emphasis on the Iranian regime's human rights abuses, which can thereby counter negative Iranian perceptions of U.S. policies and intentions. For instance, the U.S. government has supported the establishment of a special UN human rights monitor for Iran. In addition, the United States has sanctioned high-ranking Iranian security officials for their involvement in human rights abuses.
This apparent shift in U.S. policy has required that U.S. officials denounce the regime's abuses more vigorously and with more frequency. Stronger condemnations from senior U.S. officials, including President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, have been viewed by Iranian democracy activists as signs of encouragement.
It is our belief that Canada should follow in the footsteps of the United States in this regard. Canada may not be able to dissuade the Islamic Republic from continuing its nuclear program through engagement and sanctions, but it can demonstrate that it is on the side of the Iranian democrats who may rule Iran one day.
Iran is, for all intents and purposes, a one-crop country. All Iran really does is sell its oil. Oil represents about 50 per cent of the government budget, about 80 per cent of hard currency export earnings and about 25 per cent of Iran's GDP. It is a critical short-term source of hard currency the Iranians need to run their regime, sustain their currency and deal with some of their enormous economic challenges.
It is noteworthy that sanctions have been quite effective in draining capital investment and technology from the Iranian energy sector and decreasing Iran's ability to produce oil. However, these are medium- to long-term sanctions. These are sanctions that, over the next five years, the International Energy Agency and the U.S. government project will cause Iran to lose about $14 billion a year in annual oil sales.
To target Iran's oil revenue and drain the Iranian treasury of the critical hard currency in the short run implies Central Bank sanctions like those recently signed into law by President Obama. Europeans have also followed suit in freezing Central Bank of Iran's assets.
The Canadian government has essentially cut all its financial ties between the Canadian financial sector and the Iranian financial sector. However, the sanctions should target the regime, not the people. We believe that a blanket ban on financial institutions accepting transactions from Iran is already hurting innocent Iranians, including Iranian visa students who are studying in Canada, the Iranian-Canadian senior citizens who depended on the transfer of their pensions from Iran, and small businesses in Canada that are engaged in trade with Iran.
The ICC also believes that, for too long, we in Canada have turned a blind eye as the Islamic Republic's insiders made our country into a money laundering centre, not to mention using their assets to spy on dissidents abroad. In this context, one can refer to Mr. Reza Khavari, the head of the Iranian national bank, being granted Canadian citizenship in 2005. The presence of a second banking official in Montreal, Mr. Mehregan Amirkhosravi, has also been reported by the media.
In addition to sanctions, we should also consider whether our practices in other areas such as immigration policy are consistent with our condemnation of Iran's human rights record.
Like the vast majority of Iranian-Canadian individuals and entities, the ICC is against a military confrontation because of its impact on innocent civilians and its unpredictable consequences on sectarian violence in the region. However, beyond humanitarian considerations, the greatest favour the West can do for this regime is to somehow make its problems into a confrontation with the West, rather than ones that arise out of the internal contradictions of Iran's own governance.
An ability to concentrate attention on the so-called hostile West would be a lifeline to this government, shifting the focus from its own repression and allowing it to sound nationalist themes and boost its popular support.
Iran's history has created strong popular resistance to outside interference, and Tehran's ability to politically manipulate perceived external threats has proven critical in shoring up support for the ruling establishment over the past three decades. Examples include the Iran-Iraq War, the portrayal of a "surrounded" Iran in the wake of U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the "denial" of Iran's right to possess nuclear energy.
Thank you for championing the cause of the repressed people of Iran. I welcome your questions, and I thank you for this opportunity.
The Chair: Thank you, Mr. Zandi.
Senator Fortin-Duplessis: First of all, thank you for informing us about Iran. The World Bank estimates that Iran’s GDP increased by 2 per cent in 2011, but also predicts that there will be a drop as a result of the sanctions. What impact do you think sanctions have had on Iran’s economy and on the Iranian people?
Mr. Zandi: Allow me to put my economist hat on. I did my PhD at Carleton University back in the 1980s. By the way, I miss your lovely town.
The Iranian economy has, like anywhere else in the world, been contracting or at least slowing down dramatically since the recession of 2008. However, its problems are not rectified as the general recovery started around the globe.
A couple of important points need to be mentioned, the first being Iran's heavy dependence on crude oil. Iran's natural gas industry is huge; Iran has the second largest natural gas reserve in the world but at the moment is a net importer of natural gas. Its lifeline has been the export of crude oil. As I mentioned earlier, about 25 per cent of GDP is dependent upon crude oil revenue. Its budget is about 50 per cent dependent on petrol dollars.
What has been happening is twofold. First, the Islamic regime has heartily invested in oil fields in the last 30 years, since the revolution. In order to be able to continue the flow of oil, one has to invest in oil facilities. The estimates show that a minimum of $9 billion is required to be injected into the oil fields in order to maintain the status quo from a production perspective; however, the average figure is closer to $3 billion per year. That simply shows that the oil fields, which go back to the 1930s, are in a state of disarray. They need upkeep, which they are not getting, and they need new technology, which they are also not getting. As a result, even without sanctions, oil production has been dwindling for quite some time.
To put things into perspective, during the last years of the previous regime, 1977 and 1978, Iran produced about 6.1 million barrels of oil per day. Currently, it is producing no more than 3.7 million barrels per day. The population of Iran, however, has increased threefold since then, implying that the method of consumption has increased, so whatever is left of production is a tiny bit of exports. The way things are shaping up for lack of investment, we are predicting that Iran, in about 2020, will become an oil importing nation rather than exporting.
Sanctions also obviously affect this. You might be familiar with the case that this regime not only does not seem to mind the sanctions, but it denies their impact. In fact, Iran has voluntarily stated that they would withhold exports of oil to multiple countries, including the European Union. The European Union is a major buyer, particularly Spain, Italy and Greece, and the sanctions imposed by them will curtail oil exports by about 700,000 barrels per day. Currently, the only hope for Iran are China, India, South Korea and perhaps to some extent Japan.
The answer, in a nutshell, is that the Iranian economy is suffering. Its dollar has lost 50 per cent of its value this year alone, and the oil revenue is not sufficient enough to finance what they have as a targeted subsidy. It is partly a problem of sanctions and partly the phenomenon of mismanagement.
Senator Fortin-Duplessis: Since the situation you describe is not an easy one, there must surely be a very high unemployment rate in Iran. Are you aware of that? Can you say whether the unemployment rate is very high?
Mr. Zandi: This is one of the most interesting things you might hear. The current government has stopped publishing figures going back to 2010. The public is just guessing as to what the rate of inflation and what the rate of unemployment is, and when these figures come out, they come out from different sources that do not seem to be in sync with each other.
For all intents and purposes, the unemployment rate, particularly among youth under 30 years of age, is about 25 per cent. There is plenty of disguised unemployment in Iran as well. Perhaps more serious is the problem of inflation that is taking place, partly the result of sanctions and partly because of the depreciation of Iranian currency. The state of the economy is not enviable at all.
Senator De Bané: According to the 2006 Census, there are approximately 120,000 people of Iranian origin in Canada. Where do most Canadians of Iranian origin live in Canada? Has immigration from Iran been relatively steady over the years, year over year? Does Canada take in Iranian refugees? If so, how many, on average, each year?
Mr. Zandi: The bulk of the Iranian population live in metropolitan areas: Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, in that order. According to different estimates — and there are different estimates, actually, because the Census figures are kind of tricky. The questions, at least in the past, have not been very direct as to identifying the origin of people. Many second-generation Iranians do not identify themselves as Iranians, so they go unreported. With that said, you are looking at about 120,000 Iranians in the Greater Toronto Area.
Senator De Bané: Is immigration steady?
Mr. Zandi: Immigration is steady at about 6,000 per year, probably in the top seven category.
Senator De Bané: How many refugees per year?
Mr. Zandi: Very few, senator.
Senator De Bané: Second, the large majority of the diaspora are first generation; is that correct?
Mr. Zandi: Correct.
Senator De Bané: What ties do Canadians of Iranian descent have with Iran? A number of them, I suppose, like you, are university professors. Are there formal ties between Canadian universities and Iranian universities? How active politically is the Iranian diaspora? Does that diaspora send remittance, financial assistance, to their relations in Iran? What ties do Iranians have, university professors, formal ties, Canadian universities, with Iranian universities? How politically active is the Canadian diaspora? Finally, does the Iranian diaspora help their relatives in Iran financially? It will give us a good summary.
Mr. Zandi: As far as the family ties are concerned, a large percentage of Iranian-Canadians travel frequently back and forth to Iran. Except for those who are politically outspoken, there is not a major concern about travelling, even though the rules are highly unpredictable in Iran so one does not know about the outcome. If statistics given by travelling and tourism is of any relevance, all planes starting in the month of May flying to Europe through Iran are booked months ahead of time.
As far as the formal ties between Canadian and Iranian universities are concerned, the only university that I know is formally engaged in a relationship with Iran is called the university which has an MBA program in an island in the Persian gulf. That program has been going on for quite some time. I have been at the School of Business in York University for the last 21 years. There have been numerous efforts by various universities in Iran to want to establish a relationship with the university, but to no avail. There are major concerns and so on.
As far as political activities are concerned, the younger generation, the second generation, is showing signs of vitality and interest in entering the political arena, if that is what you meant, senator.
As far as other activities are concerned, economic activities, it is a vibrant community, without a doubt. The GTA, Greater Toronto Area, hosts the Iranian committee as the second largest builder in real estate, for instance. One must be mindful that the flow of Iranians to the rest of the world as immigrants only started after the revolution, which is about 30 years ago, so the Iranian community is pretty young.
As far as remittances are concerned, yes, there is to some degree a transfer of money from Canada to Iran, but I would say that there is more money coming out of Iran to Canada than the other way around. This is increasingly becoming more clear despite the fact that there is significant financial restriction on the banking sector. Many Iranians who have been holding two residences, one in Canada and one in Iran, are now perhaps beginning to think twice, trying to get the last parts out before it is too late.
Senator Mahovlich: Is there evidence that foreign students from Iran stay in Canada following the completion of their studies?
Mr. Zandi: As far as I know, senator, yes. The immigration laws in Canada have changed to allow university-educated, international students who graduate from Canadian universities to stay in Canada. They are allowed to work for a period of three years, even outside their own area of specialization, the objective being, as far as I understand, that if Canada is to admit immigrants, they might as well be trained in Canada, speak the language and be familiar with the country. That is perhaps the general policy as a whole.
As far as Iranian students are concerned, I will give you some personal experience. We have a large number of students at York University, where I teach. The majority of them, however, are immigrants or second generation. A few who come from Iran do get to stay. The reason is that typically those who come from Iran primarily to do graduate studies are cream of the crop. It is easy for them to blend in and find positions in the area of their specialization. For instance, at this moment, we have about eight PhD students at our business school from Iran at York University. They all come from top-notch technical schools in Iran. Sharif Industrial University exports 90 per cent of its graduates to the rest of the world, and Canada is one of the beneficiaries.
Senator Mahovlich: Do more students go to the States rather than Canada?
Mr. Zandi: Since 9/11, things have changed quite a bit, not only in terms of the flow of human capital to the United States but also financial. From both perspectives, Canada has been able to replace, although on a smaller scale, what used to be the U.S. share.
Senator Mahovlich: Are there impediments that make it difficult for Iranian students to leave Iran to study here in Canada?
Mr. Zandi: As long as they have not been involved in political affairs, their departure appears to be without a hitch. Entering Canada, however, requires significant financial documentation that they would not be a burden on Canadian society, that their sponsors, whether parents or guardians or government scholarships, are in fact adequate to enable them to continue studying abroad.
Senator Frum: Professor, I am curious why Iran would tolerate seeing 90 per cent of their highly trained students in the technical college leave the country. Why is that an acceptable situation for them? Why do they allow them to go?
Mr. Zandi: The ban on travelling, senator, has not been an attribute of this regime from the beginning, except in locations where individuals were deemed highly political, subversive and so forth. Iran, from day one, from the 1979 arrival of Ayatollah Khomeini, has made it absolutely clear that the valuable is not human beings and human capital. The valuable are commodities and things. This trend seems to have continued to this date.
That said, there is a significant number of people who are related to top-ranking officials of the regime, whether in the government or in the parliament and so on, who have dual citizenship of many countries, including Canada. It has been perceived by the Iranian regime that it would be easier for them to let them go than perhaps to stay and cause trouble, if I can put it plainly.
There is a quote that I will paraphrase. Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 said in one of his great speeches, "We do not need physicians. We do not need lawyers. We can train them ourselves. Theology can answer all of the short comings." At the time, I was a student here at Carleton, not in Iran, but I was following it on the short-wave radio. Regardless, that has been the basic premise.
It is not an exaggeration that the cream of the crop of Iranian society has left and is continuing to leave. As I mentioned in answer to the earlier question, according to Statistics Canada, somewhere between 6,000 to 7,000 Iranians immigrate to Canada. They come in a number of categories: investors, entrepreneurs and skilled workers.
Senator Frum: Would the state fund their education?
Mr. Zandi: No, these are people who seek independent application to come here.
Senator Frum: No, is the technical, elite college a private college?
Mr. Zandi: It is all government.
Senator Frum: I understand the disregard for human beings — for their citizens. At the same time, when you invest in someone's education, you are creating a form of commodity.
Mr. Zandi: That is correct. This June, there will be a reunion of the alumni of two of the universities in the city. One of them is Sharif University of Technology. Judging by the number of people who are supposed to participate here — there are other associations, also.
I understand your question clearly. There is an association in Toronto called the Engineering Association. This engineering association is growing rapidly every year because of the number of engineers who come from Iran. They just do not come from any university, but particularly those who can — who are skilled and bright — tend to come to Canada and to the United States, as well.
To dramatize this a bit, to get into a publicly-funded, higher-ranking university in Iran, you do not just send in an application; you write a national entrance examination. About 1.5 million write a national entrance examination. Of those, probably 400 will get into this technical school, at the maximum. You are talking about the brightest of the bright.
By their own statistics, 90 per cent have left and are leaving.
Senator Frum: Incredible.
Senator Johnson: Canada has closed its visa office in Tehran. Based on what we have been discussing, how do you think this will affect either students or other citizens trying to leave? They now have to go to Turkey. Will this be an impediment?
Mr. Zandi: As far as I know, the temporary visa section has moved to Ankara, Turkey. I believe the protocol to require a student visa is somewhat different. Based on what I know, that has not changed; the students can continue applying to the Canadian embassy in Tehran.
Senator Robichaud: Thank you for your presentation, Mr. Zandi. You talked about the economic situation. Oil production is falling. A lot of work has to be done to modernize production sites. You discussed inflation, which is partly due to the sanctions that have been imposed. You said that corruption was rampant. At what point will all these effects lead to a critical situation? How will the regime stay in power since, at some time, the situation will reach a tipping point?
Mr. Zandi: If someone were to have asked me 20 years ago when I thought this economic situation in Iran would blow up, I would have said, "It is a matter of time." Since the beginning, nothing was going right. If you were to ask me the same question today, I would say, "It is very imminent."
I am sorry. This is my nature and my training; I am more comfortable with numbers and figures. The Government of Iran, in its recent budget, indicates that they require $500 billion investment in infrastructure, primarily in natural gas and the crude oil industry. The entire economy of Iran got only $3 billion last year. We are talking about a drop in the ocean. Not all $3 billion, perhaps, has been utilized in a most efficient manner.
By contrast, a small country that is probably one-fiftieth of Iran — Lebanon, for instance — receives more foreign investment and has absolutely no oil or natural gas. It is the same for neighbouring countries, such as Egypt and Turkey.
I am trying to say that things are deteriorating quite rapidly. I have a list of probably 70 different companies around the globe in the oil industry, in transportation, in aviation, in mining, and in natural gas that have left Iran in the last two or three years. Many of them have left voluntarily; many of them left because of the sanctions. In particular, the U.S. sanctions appear to have a sharp edge; any entity that deals or invests in Iran becomes subject of the U.S. sanctions. That is probably the main reason for that.
Total, a French company, has gone; Shell has gone. British Petroleum has gone. All of the shipping industries have gone. Even the Iranian shipping company has a problem because no insurance company in the world wants to insure them.
If there were a time that the Iranian economy would begin to get choked — pardon the expression — it is about now.
With that in mind, there is unemployment and inflation and a terrible distribution of income. In parts of Tehran, you can probably find housing that costs about $700 per square foot and there are people who cannot even afford to have ground beef once per month. You are looking at a humungous disparity that has been created in the past several years.
The government of Ahmadinejad in the last seven years in power has compounded the economic problem that he inherited from his predecessor. He has put the IRGC, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, at the forefront. The IRGC has turned Iran into an importing regime to the extent that the entire manufacturing sector is collapsing or has collapsed. There is no domestic competitive industry; everything is imported primarily from China.
The reason they have put all their eggs in the basket of importing instead of producing domestically, which totally defies any logic, is because you can make commission on imports but you could not get a bribe or a kickback otherwise.
The IRGC is at the forefront of all business activities. It is at the forefront of every favour that the Government of Iran is extending to its domestic allies and its offspring abroad.
Corruption is rampant on a phenomenal scale. Obviously, this has trickled down to the lower levels of every industry at every level of production or consumption.
Let us not forget that Iran in the last 33 years since the revolution has sold about $1 trillion in crude oil. That is a lot of money. This has perhaps been the source of wealth of people who in one way or another are doing government contracts, if not directly related to the government, or government affiliates.
Senator Robichaud: Of that trillion dollars that you say Iran has made through the selling of oil, how much of that money has stayed in the country? We know that sometimes business people try to hide money where the taxation system cannot get to them. Would that have happened in Iran?
Mr. Zandi: I can give you anecdotal figures. Last year, a special committee in the Parliament of Iran made a statement that $15 billion of crude oil revenue was missing. That is not an uncommon occurrence whatsoever. Apart from the fact that many benefit from these revenues, there is a special allocation of budgets that are secret accounts. Much of them, as we know, are probably devoted to supporting Hezbollah, Hamas and other organizations in the Middle East.
We have seen accounts repeatedly on the Internet about wealth accumulated by top officials of Iran, whether it is the Islamic guard, the government, the guardian or even Ayatollah Khamenei himself. We are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more. Apparently his sons have been reported to have more than $1.5 billion in assets outside of Iran. That is the current state of affairs.
Anyone who works for the government or has government affiliated contracts, most contracts that are in roads, housing or major construction of any sort are government funded, so a lot of civilians benefit from that. I guess we both know many civilians who live in Canada, have households or families here but work in Iran, so they go back and forth because there is no way they can make the same earnings here. The connection is there.
Senator Downe: My question is along the same lines as that of Senator Robichaud. I assume the senior corrupt officials, in addition to sponsoring terrorism in the region, would also be trying to move some money out of the country in case things went badly. Do you have any information on that? Do you know, in particular, of any countries that are accepting this money into their financial systems?
Mr. Zandi: As far as I know, and probably it is somewhat limited, there are — with the example that I provided in my opening remarks, I am sure you have heard of this from others who gave testimony here, about the chairman of Bank Melli, which itself has been blacklisted by the United States and other countries. Many people in his capacity have been able to transfer most of their wealth outside of Iran.
Those in the position of wealth have learned not to keep liquid assets in Iran; they transfer it out, at least as far as Dubai. However, the Dubai banking system has started to place severe restrictions on the transfer of money from Iran. Unless one has had some kind of history with a bank in Dubai, it is difficult now to get money outside of Iran through an intermediary.
The other neutral countries around the globe, such as Bulgaria, as I have heard repeatedly as a source, and South Korea, which is a major trade partner with Iran, its banks are often targeted by officials who want to have their wealth transferred outside of Iran.
North America is obviously not a participating country, except for those who have been able to obtain landed immigrant status, simply because we have more restrictive laws in place, but the bulk of the world simply does not participate. India has also been a destination for these money transfers.
The Chair: Does your organization track people who come from Iran that you believe should not have gotten citizenship? In other words, is your community well informed and, therefore, politically active in bringing forward your concerns to the Government of Canada?
Samad Assadpour, Secretary of the Board of Directors, Iranian Canadian Congress: I would like to add, if I may, regarding human rights and all questions related to the economy and sanctions, the Iranian Council inside Iran is a human rights violation, and it gets worse each year.
Also, I believe that if the pressure that Western countries put on the Iranian government to stop nuclear power projects shifted to human rights, it would be much better. Maybe the countries could join together. If we have democracy or freedom in Iran and if we have a government that follows human rights rules, maybe it would not need to have nuclear power or nuclear energy. Nuclear energy projects may end, but the same government could have another problem in the next decade. There is no freedom in Iran or any devices to transfer the voices of Iranian people. The international community is putting a lot of pressure on Iran to stop the nuclear process. I believe it is okay because we have a dictatorship in Iran, but it would be better to stop that. We do not believe they will not use these nuclear weapons, and they do not respect international peace.
The main thing is that human rights are being ignored right now by different parts of society and different people. In this regard, with respect to your question, I think the Canadian policy should make some facilities available in order for Iranian human rights activists to get around the country and maybe then they would be accepted here. Also, prevent or stop people working in the IRGC or those who are human rights abusers from coming to Canada.
As Mr. Zandi mentioned, the IRGC is involved in not just military actions or processes; they are involved in the economy and in any process related to government. Those who have lots of money and power would like to have citizenship in Western countries such as Canada. Therefore, I believe that if something happens in Iran, such as is currently the case, many of them would like to get in to your country. The policy should be set out in two ways, first to accept more human rights activists who would like to leave Iran, such as students and university professors, and second, stop granting Canadian citizenship to those people that I mentioned.
Mr. Zandi: Our organization does not have any statistics. We simply do not have any way of finding out who is coming and who is not; we only get to find out about people, like the chair of the Bank Melli, through Canadian media.
The Chair: That was my point. You found out, as an organization, from the media.
Mr. Zandi: That is correct.
The Chair: You were not aware of the constituency of Iranians in Canada that may have produced some of these people.
Mr. Zandi: That is correct. However, the community is very large, as I indicated before. Inevitably, people have some idea about what is going on, which gets circulated. We get to find out.
To add to that, I personally, not in this capacity at the ICC but as an individual, have been present in a number of meetings with government officials such as the former foreign minister, and Mr. Kenney and Mr. Weston, the MP for West Vancouver. In those meetings, a number of questions about the Iranian community have been raised, and we have shared some information. We have been told that the government is keeping tabs on who is coming but that they welcome any information that we have to share with them. When occasions arose, we did.
The Chair: Thank you. We have run out of time so we cannot pursue these issues.
As you can see, I think I was right, at the start, to say that, given enough time, we would explore many issues beyond your statement. You very kindly responded by answering all of them.
Thank you for coming here and sharing your information. Senators, we will be adjourned; there will not be a meeting tomorrow. Also, we do not anticipate meetings the following week until we receive the legislation that we are anticipating from the chamber. We will keep you posted about the week following the break week, but there is no meeting tomorrow.
(The committee adjourned.)