January 4, 2018 | The Hill Times

How Canada should respond to the Iranian protests

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians are protesting in cities across the country. At the time of writing, Iranian security forces have killed at least 21 protesters, and hundreds have been arrested. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has now been deployed, which is bad news for the dissidents. The IRGC’s role is to “safeguard the revolution and its achievements,” which essentially authorizes this unconventional army to interpret any opposition to the regime as a counterrevolutionary act deserving of a violent response. The Guards are responsible for some of the most deplorable abuses against the Iranian people, which the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran reports on year after year.

While the media have tended to focus on economic grievances as the root of the demonstrations, consider some of the chants heard on the streets of Iran: “We will die to get our Iran back!” “We don’t want an Islamic Republic!” “The Clerics Act Like Gods!” Death or freedom!” “Death to Khamenei!” “Death to Rouhani!” “Leave Syria, think about us!” “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran!”

In other words, Iranians’ fury and outrage are also about government corruption; foreign adventurism, including Tehran’s support of Assad’s murderous regime in Syria and its controlling of Lebanon through Hezbollah; providing billions of dollars to terrorist groups while ordinary Iranians are going hungry; domestic repression; and theocratic governance.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government have long been struggling to carve out a consistent position on the Islamic Republic of Iran. On the one hand, the Liberals have rightly followed in the footsteps of previous Canadian governments in sponsoring an annual resolution at the United Nations condemning Tehran’s human rights violations. This tradition began when Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was arbitrarily arrested, tortured, raped, and murdered by Iranian officials in 2003. On the other hand, Ottawa has been aggressively pursuing re-engagement with the regime, largely aimed at creating financial opportunities for Canadian companies, even though doing business in Iran inevitably means enriching the very government entities responsible for the human rights abuses that Ottawa condemns.


In light of the protests taking place—and the ruthless response by the Iranian regime—Canada should consider taking the following measures:

  • Support Bill S-219, which would tie the elimination of all current Canadian sanctions targeting the Iranian government (there are only a few remaining after the Trudeau government lifted most of the sanctions in 2015) to requirements that the regime cease its terrorist activities, end its incitement to hatred of minority groups, and – most importantly in the context of the demonstrations now rocking Iran—put a halt to its vast system of domestic repression. Only once improvement is seen in these areas could sanctions against Iran be eased or lifted. This is similar to the approach taken by the United States in reaching an arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union in 1975, which linked security, economic and human rights issues.
  • Target relevant members of the Iranian regime for human rights abuses and corruption, including the Supreme Leader and IRCG leadership, through the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act. This is a bill recently passed in Canada in honour of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer and auditor who in 2008 discovered hundreds of millions of dollars of tax fraud linked to the Kremlin and individuals close to the government. Magnitsky died in a Russian jail after being imprisoned without charges, beaten, and denied regular access to lawyers and adequate medical assistance. Canada’s new Magnitsky legislation is a highly appropriate tool to confront Iran’s violent suppression of protests; criminalization of political dissent; executions of minors and homosexuals; imprisonment of journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders; stoning of women; and persecution of ethnic and religious minorities.
  • Provide greater transparency about, and perhaps even reconsider, the $100 million sale of Bombardier aircraft to Iran, for which the Canadian government has provided 80 per cent of the financing, according to the Iran-based Financial Tribune. The deal has received virtually no public scrutiny in the Canadian media or legislature, and the available information has largely come from Iranian media sources. But insofar as Iran’s aviation sector has contributed to that country’s sponsorship of terrorism and continued human rights violations, the Canadian Parliament and public are entitled to know the details of this deal. Indeed, Iranian commercial carriers have been used to deliver military support to Assad and Hezbollah since 2011, and even more so since the summer of 2015, when Iran and Russia collaborated to prevent Assad’s regime from collapsing in Aleppo. Hundreds of flights, mostly run by commercial airlines using civilian aircraft, have helped Assad cling to power. Canadian interests in preventing Iran from continuing its unlawful activities are now competing with jobs and money at stake with the Bombardier deal. This is exactly the type of dilemma the Iranian regime wants Ottawa to face.
  • Canadian parliamentarians should all be publicly voicing their support for the Iranian dissidents. As Natan Sharansky, a refusenik in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s, explains, “What matters to Iranians debating whether to cross this decisive threshold is how much they dislike their own government, as well as their knowledge that the free world — those who share the basic principles for which they are fighting— stands behind them in their moment of truth.”

This is a critical moment for the Iranian people, who deserve to be free in how they think and dress and worship. Canada cannot now be silent.

Sheryl Saperia is director of policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.