Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Iran maintains a presence in Ottawa despite embassy closure

SEPTEMBER 12, 2012

Activity around the Iranian Embassy in Ottawa as the staff prepares to close it down.

Photograph by: Chris Mikula , The Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA — Though Wednesday marks the deadline for Iranian diplomats expelled by Canada to leave the country, a controversial organization suspected of having strong ties to the governing regime in Tehran will remain in business despite accusations from some in the Iranian-Canadian community that the centre is a greater source of intimidation than the embassy.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced last Friday that Iranian diplomats were no longer welcome in Canada, and that the federal government would be closing the Canadian embassy in Tehran. Although the catalyst for the move is unclear, cabinet ministers have cited a range of factors, including Iran’s support of terrorist organizations, the dangers faced by diplomatic staff in Tehran and the intelligence activities in Canada of purported Iranian diplomats.
All Iranian diplomats must leave Canada by end of day Wednesday, but even as diplomatic vehicles entered and exited the gated embassy on Metcalfe Street Tuesday, the Iranian Cultural Centre situated at 2 Robinson Street off Lees Avenue in Ottawa remained open,
Baird’s office confirmed the cultural centre was not affected by Friday’s decision. The centre has a documented history of hosting controversial events, including a conference at Carleton University in honour of theocrat Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It was also headed by Hamid Mohammadi, a cultural counsellor at the embassy who made headlines over the summer for making inflammatory comments exhorting Iranian-Canadians to “be of service” to Tehran, to aspire to “occupy high-level key positions” and to “resist being melted into the dominant Canadian culture.”
When contacted by the Citizen, Mohammadi would not confirm if he was one of the diplomats being expelled from Canada.
“The Iranian cultural centre does not have diplomatic status, privileges or immunities, nor did it ever enjoy such status. As such, it does not fall under the purview of the Department,” wrote DFAIT media officer Jean-Bruno Villeneuve in an email.
Iranian-Canadians who have protested the cultural centre’s activities said the centre was the source of intimidation for many émigrés and that closing the centre was more important than closing the embassy. Two large moving trucks loading boxes and a diplomatic car were parked outside the cultural centre Tuesday, but workers on site would not confirm whether the centre was moving or closing.
“It was through the cultural centre that they were allowed to spread their propaganda and they were allowed to really conduct activities outside the embassy that could have affected the Iranian people, the normal residents,” said Golrokh Niazi, an Iranian-Canadian human rights activist and recent Carleton graduate.
Niazi had protested events co-organized by the cultural centre and the Iranian Culture Association of Carleton University during the 2011-2012 school year. She said some of her peers at Carleton felt “paranoid” about attending events such as the one celebrating Khomeini in June, because they feared their names and photos would be sent to the embassy if they expressed dissenting opinions. The Carleton Iranian student group president, Ehsan Mohammadi, is the son of cultural counsellor Hamid Mohammadi.
“It’s crazy to me they would cut all diplomatic ties, that they would act as if our so called enemies don’t exist, to cut down all the services, but for the cultural centre, that’s okay, they can function,” Niazi said. She does not support the decision to close the embassy, but said the centre should no longer be able to hold events that threaten the Iranian diaspora.
The cultural centre also organized an exhibition of Persian culture on Sept. 1, which Conservative Senator Don Meredith was criticized for attending.
Ali Tabatabaei a member of the Iranian Green Movement Ottawa and the opposition party National Front of Iran, was told by Carleton security not to hold protest signs outside the doors of the Carleton room where the cultural centre and student group held the Khomeini event in June.
Yet shutting down the embassy, Tabatabaei said, was counterintuitive because any activities could continue if the student group and cultural centre remained open. He said shuttering the embassy would only hurt bilateral dialogue while the safety concerns raised by the cultural centre events would not go away.
DFAIT media officer Villeneuve said the cultural centre must comply with all Canadian laws and regulations, including existing sanctions against Iran.
The embassy property on Metcalfe Street must be emptied by the end of Wednesday but the building is still considered to be owned by Iran.

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