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Rights + Justice

Why Is Ottawa Demonizing Iran's Opposition?

At a boisterous Paris protest, the weirdness of Canada's stance is on full display.

Terry Glavin 5 Jul

Victoria-based Terry Glavin is an occasional columnist for The Tyee.

Iran's ruling mullahs say it's a cult of assassins. The U.S. State Department says it's a front for a shadowy Iranian terrorist group. But the National Council of the Resistance in Iran can count hawks from the George W. Bush era and European socialists among its strongest supporters, and the star attractions a boisterous NCRI rally here in Paris on June 28 included several Canadian MPs.

The NCRI gathering, which drew about 30,000 Iranian exiles from around the world, was more like an outdoor rock concert than a political rally. Jean Bouin Stadium in Taverny, a Paris suburb, was transformed into a sea of mauve hats and mauve sun umbrellas. Against a big-screen backdrop, the warm-up acts included speeches from former Algerian prime minister Ahmed Ghozali and former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar.

It was as surreal as it was spectacular. MP Rob Oliphant (Don Valley West), a soft-spoken United Church minister, chatted amiably offstage with John Bolton, the famously combative Iraq war enthusiast and former U.S. representative to the United Nations. NCRI president Maryam Rajavi, the NCRI's enigmatic president (some say her husband Masoud, the NCRI's official leader, may be dead), hovered overheard in a helicopter while European politicians delivered their speeches. When she finally ascended the stage, the crowd roared with euphoria.

The Iranian theocracy, terrified of the NCRI, reacted quickly to the Paris rally. At a regime-approved demonstration on Monday at the French embassy in Tehran, hundreds of Khomeinist demonstrators demanded French President Nicholas Sarkozy arrest the NCRI leaders and send them back to Iran for trial.

The NCRI is the best organized and most tightly disciplined Iranian opposition network in the world, and Canadians have been at the forefront in supporting the NCRI. But the largest component of the NCRI coalition, the People's Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI), is listed as a terrorist group in both the U.S. and Canada.

Canada joins a growing club

Any day now, U.S. troops and U.N. guards are expected to pull out of Camp Ashraf in Iraq, where about 3,000 PMOI members have been stranded for several years. Last year, 11 Ashraf inmates died when Iraqi troops stormed the camp on orders from Iran's friends in the Iraqi government, so the PMOI's prospects at the moment look exceedingly grim.

Still, the mood in NCRI circles is guardedly optimistic these days. The U.N. has now approved sanctions against Tehran, and parliamentary majorities in 23 democracies have lately come out in support of the NCRI and the Mojahedin. Canada has just joined that club.

In Paris, Raymonde Folco (Laval -- Les Isles) and Yasmin Ratansi (Don Valley East) brought news that 155 Canadian MPs -- a parliamentary majority -- had just signed a petition demanding that the U.N. and the U.S. maintain protection of Camp Ashraf.

The British government and the European Parliament have granted the NCRI and the Mojahedin a clean bill of health, and the U.S. State Department's designation is being challenged in the U.S. courts. Canada's listing of the Mojahedin as a terrorist entity is expected to be reviewed later this summer.

"Now that we have a groundswell of support, I think we'll be able to work with like-minded people to get them de-listed," Ratansi said.

If the PMOI is struck from Ottawa's terrorist blacklist, Canada will be in a position to openly support the NCRI and formally intervene at the U.N. on behalf of the Camp Ashraf inmates.

For MP Pablo Rodriguez (Honoré-Mercier) the Mojahedin's terrorist designation is both bogus and irrelevant: "My family were political refugees from Argentina a long time ago. The people at Camp Ashraf are refugees, and we have to demonstrate our solidarity. We have to make clear that we will not tolerate human rights abuses in Iran, so it's right to be here."

Said Oliphant: "Canada needs an independent foreign policy, and we need to think very carefully about what we mean when we define something as a terrorist group. This isn't a terrorist group. This is a group that is struggling for freedom. They're on the front lines of the struggle for democracy in Iran. They're anti-violence."

'The situation looks very perilous'

Former Alberta MP David Kilgour, a long-time friend of the NCRI and an honoured guest at the weekend gathering, said Canada's de-listing of the PMOI would allow Ottawa to at least get out of the way of the NCRI's pro-democracy mobilization. "It's complicated, but as far as I'm concerned the criticism you hear about the NCRI and the People's Mojahedin -- it's all nonsense." Kilgour served as the master of ceremonies at an NCRI event in Paris last year that drew close to 90,000 people.

It was a long and winding road that ended up with the Mojahedin stranded at Ashraf in Iraq. Its twists and turns included a secret French pact with Tehran that freed French hostages kidnapped by Hezbollah, the Bill Clinton administration's efforts to appease Tehran by demonizing and isolating the PMOI, and the Mojahedin's own mistake in siding with Saddam Hussein during the bloody Iran-Iraq war of the early 1980s.

Where that road leads now, however, is anyone's guess.

"The situation looks very perilous," said David Matas, a Winnipeg refugee-rights lawyer who has been helping the NCRI find international-law protections for the Camp Ashraf Mojahedin.

Although the PMOI emerged as an Islamic-Marxist insurgency during the revolutionary fervour in Iran in the 1960s, the group renounced violence in 2001. Paradoxically, despite the U.S. designation of the PMOI as a terrorist group, the U.S. State Department later declared the Camp Ashraf Mojahedin to be protected refugees under the Geneva Conventions.

"None of this makes any sense," Matas said. "If a Canadian court ever looked at the PMOI terrorist designation, my best guess is that it just wouldn't stand up. Canada has no excuse for this."

'Canada could be very helpful'

The very least the world's democracies should do is make things less difficult for the NCRI, the main Iranian opposition group, and harder for the regime's agents around the world, the NCRI's friends and supports say.

"Canada could be very helpful," Alireza Jafarzadeh, the Iranian-American engineer who was instrumental in exposing Iran's ambition to build a nuclear bomb, told me.

Canada has been among the Iranian regime's most vocal critics at the U.N., but Ottawa is shooting itself in the foot in the way it handles its relations with the Iranian opposition. Jafarzedeh reiterated the routine complaint from Iranian-Canadians that Khomeinist agents have been using the Immigrant Investor Program to come and go freely from Canada while pro-democracy Iranian exiles are commonly denied refugee status owing to their associations with the PMOI.

Author of The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis, Jafarzadeh said Iran's democratic opposition isn't asking Canada or anyone else for guns or money. "But Canada can help make the regime pay for its non-compliance. Let the Iranian people decide how to overthrow the regime, but remove all the roadblocks."  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Politics

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