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As Tehran condemns decision to list IRGC as terrorist group, Ottawa urges Canadians in Iran to come home | CBC News

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The federal government is urging Canadians in Iran to come home to avoid acts of retaliation by the state — including arbitrary arrest — as Tehran condemns Ottawa’s decision to list the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani called the terrorism designation an “unwise and unconventional politically motivated step” and said Tehran reserves the right to respond accordingly.

“Canada’s action will not have any effect on the Revolutionary Guards’ legitimate and deterrent power,” Kanaani said, according to Iran’s Fars news agency, which has ties to the IRGC.

“We know that this is going to have real impacts for members of the Iranian community in Canada and potentially their families back home,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday. “Which is why we needed to take our time to get this done the right way.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said the government’s decision to list the IRGC might expose Canadians to “a heightened risk of arbitrary detention in Iran” and warned Canadians to return home immediately.

“For those who are in Iran right now, it’s time to come back,” Joly said. “For those who are planning to go to Iran, don’t go.”

WATCH |Canada lists IRGC as terrorist group:  

Canada designates Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist entity

The federal government is declaring Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist entity under Canada’s Criminal Code after years of pressure. That means police can charge anyone who financially or materially supports the group and banks can freeze its assets.

The government also added new warnings about the dangers of being in Iran on Wednesday after ministers announced the new terrorism designation following years of mounting public pressure. 

Canada updated its travel advisory, warning the possibility of arbitrary detention was no longer just a possibility, it was a high risk. The advisory also changed from recommending Canadians consider leaving to advising them to leave now. 

“In the context of recent developments between Canada and Iran, Iranian authorities could take retaliatory measures that could pose a risk to the safety and security of Canadians, including Canadian-Iranians,” the travel advisory says.

Global Affairs Canada posted on social media that Canadians in Iran could be under increased surveillance for activities considered “innocuous in Canada” including taking photographs in public places, travelling to remote areas, and interacting with locals.

‘Keep a low profile’

The government is now warning Canadians in Iran to “keep a low profile and don’t share your personal information with strangers.”

More than 1,600 Canadians are registered in Iran, according to the Registration of Canadians Abroad Service. Global Affairs said that since registration is voluntary, this figure might underestimate the actual number of Canadians there.

The department is recommending that people leave Iran on commercial flights if it’s safe to do so.

Canada severed diplomatic ties with Iran in 2012. Joly warned that the government cannot offer Canadians at risk in Iran the same level of support they could access in countries where Canada has embassies.

“We do not have an embassy in Iran,” said Joly. “We’ve cut diplomatic ties for years now, and therefore, we won’t be able to provide the consular expertise that would be required.”

Surveillance operations 

Dennis Horak was Canada’s head of mission in Iran from 2009 to 2012, when the embassy closed. He said Iran has a “very active … cyber army” that monitors social media and online activity, including email; he said Tehran may decide to “step that up.”

When he was in Iran, he said, he and his colleagues operated on the “full assumption” that their phones were tapped, and embassy staff were followed from time to time.

WATCH | Exposing how Iran tracks and threatens people: 

Exposing how Iran tracks and threatens people in Canada

CSIS recently confirmed there are multiple ‘credible’ death threats from Iran aimed at people in Canada. CBC News’s chief correspondent Adrienne Arsenault meets with several Iranians who describe their experiences of being monitored and intimidated on Canadian soil.

Tehran could take retaliatory measures against individuals to send a message to other countries not to follow Canada’s lead, Horak said. The U.S. has already listed the IRGC as a terrorist entity. The U.K. has signalled it plans do so and there’s a push underway for EU countries to list the IRGC as well.

Horak said he doesn’t think Iran is “overly bothered by” the terrorism listing because it’s mostly a “symbolic gesture.” But he warned that Iran could still try to send the international community a signal through arbitrary arrests.

A prison exchange unfolded last week. Sweden freed a former Iranian official convicted for his role in a mass execution in Iran in the 1980s, in exchange for the release of two Swedish citizens held in Iran. 

“The big concern is arbitrary detention,” Horak said. “We’ve seen this in the past with the Canadian dual nationals and that’s always a risk. Iran has a habit of doing this … to try and send a message.”

Horak said called Canada’s travel advisory “smart,” but doesn’t think it will lead to an exodus of Canadians unless arrests start being made. He said most Canadians in Iran are dual nationals and live in Iran either permanently or on a long-term basis.

Amir Arsalani told CBC News his mother, who is a Canadian citizen living in Iran, refuses to come to Canada despite Ottawa’s warning. She doesn’t want to leave her family behind, he said.

“She’s telling me she’s not going to leave home,” he said. “I fear for my mom’s safety of course, but there is only so much I can do.”

Arsalani lost his sister, brother-in-law and 16-month-old niece on Flight PS752. The IRGC shot down the plane over the skies of Tehran in 2020, killing 176 people, most with ties to Canada. 

Members of the Iranian community gather and grieve on the fourth anniversary of the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752, in Toronto on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024.
Members of the Iranian community gather and grieve on the fourth anniversary of the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752, in Toronto on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

Arsalani said his family in Iran has been harassed, intimidated and threatened.

After his family did an interview with the BBC two years ago, three unknown people showed up at his father’s house in Iran, searched for devices, kicked him and broke his nose, he said. 

He said his Canadian mother was also brought in for questioning by Iran’s secret intelligence services after posting content online about her loved ones lost on Flight PS752.

‘Inhumane’ pressure on families

Hamed Esmaeilion is a prominent Canadian critic of Iran’s regime; his wife Parisa and nine-year-old daughter Reera died on Flight PS752. 

Esmaeilion said his family members in Iran have also been targeted by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry through repeated phone calls.

Hamed Esmaeilion speaks to a members of the Iranian community as they gather and grieve on the fourth anniversary of the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752, in Toronto on Sunday, January 7, 2024.
Hamed Esmaeilion speaks to a members of the Iranian community as they gather and grieve on the fourth anniversary of the destruction of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 in Toronto on Sunday, January 7, 2024. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

His parents, who are permanent residents of Canada, have also been banned by Iran’s regime from leaving the country, he said. His mother was stopped at the airport in December 2023 and was told she couldn’t leave.

“I can go back, but there’s no way to leave Iran after that,” he said.

RCMP speaking to diaspora communities 

When asked by CBC News about the risk of Iran retaliating on Canadian soil, the RCMP said it would be “inappropriate for us to speculate.”

“Through established networks, the RCMP in collaboration with police of jurisdiction across Canada are engaging with the various diaspora communities to increase their awareness on these criminal behaviours and encourage them to report these crimes,” RCMP spokesperson Robin Percival told CBC News in a media statement.

Iranian-Canadians have reported being monitored, threatened and followed on Canadian soil by those they believe are agents of the Iranian regime. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service also warned in 2022 that it was investigating “credible” death threats from Iran against individuals in Canada.

Esmaeilion is among those who have reported suspicious activity to authorities. He said he believes his Toronto-area home is being monitored. He said that when his mother was visiting him last year, someone posted the information online when she flew back to Iran.

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