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Think carefully on what comes next in Iran, expert urges Canadian politicians

OTTAWA — Canadian politicians need to think about what would happen if the Iranian regime actually falls, an expert says as Ottawa's response to protests abroad becomes political fodder at home.
Members of the Iranian community and their supporters rally in solidarity with protesters in Iran, after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody for allegedly improperly wearing a hijab, in Ottawa on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. Canada has sanctioned 25 senior Iranian officials and nine entities. Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly will also bar nine entities from doing business with Canadians.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA — Canadian politicians need to think about what would happen if the Iranian regime actually falls, an expert says as Ottawa's response to protests abroad becomes political fodder at home.

"Our government in Canada has fallen short, has been weak, and has failed to stand up to the tyrants in Tehran," Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said at a massive rally north of Toronto on Saturday.

He urged people "to free Iran and to pursue a new, democratic government in that country."

Thousands of Iranians took to the streets across Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in mid-September, two days after she was arrested by Iran's morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab too loosely.

The response from the Liberal government — and the official Opposition — has started to turn into a battleground for the two rival parties.

Thomas Juneau, a University of Ottawa international affairs professor specializing in Iran, said both Liberals and Conservatives want the regime to fall, with the latter saying so more clearly.

Yet he warned that both parties need to have a better sense of which groups to support on the ground. He said the current regime is continually weakening, but doesn't expect it to imminently collapse. 

"There is no organized opposition ready to take over, if or when the Islamic Republic falls," Juneau said in an interview.

"That's something that proponents of regime change, even if they make a good point, tend to neglect."

Liberal MP Ali Ehsassi spoke to the crowd in Richmond Hill, Ont., which York Regional Police estimate to have numbered 50,000 people.

Organizers said they had invited Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly to attend, providing emails they sent Sept. 28. Offices for both said they received the invitations on Friday evening, with less than 24 hours' notice.

The Conservatives brought up the absence of cabinet ministers at the rally during Monday's question period in the House of Commons.

Joly noted that she spoke with Iranian women's rights activists the day of the rally.

"This is not a partisan issue. We are all together in denouncing what is happening in Iran," she said.

On Sunday, Trudeau tweeted that Parliament Hill would be illuminated overnight in the colours of the Iranian flag in support of the protesters,a move the Conservatives ridiculed in the House of Commons.

On Monday, the Liberals announced sanctions against 25 senior Iranian officials and nine government entities, a week after promising to bar officials from entering Canada and freezing Canadian-held assets.

Ottawa says the sanctions are meant to target those who enforce repressive measures, violate human rights and spread the regime’s propaganda.

Among those to be sanctioned are the morality police force and its chief, as well as Iran's highest-ranking soldier.

The list includes top two officials of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, major-generals Mohammad Bagheri and Hossein Salami, as well as Esmail Qaani, who is commander of the already sanctioned Quds Force, which operates outside Iran.

Ottawa will also sanction Intelligence and Security Minister Esmail Khatib and the morality police leader Mohammad Rostami Cheshmeh Gachi.

The sanctions will also apply to Mohammad Saleh Hashemi Golpayegani, who is the civil servant overseeing Iran's Office of Enjoining Right and Forbidding Evil, which sets the morality codes Iranian police enforce.

Among the institutions facing sanctions will be Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, where Iran detains and often tortures political prisoners, and the IRGC cyber branch.

On Parliament Hill, Joly said that even more sanctions are coming "very soon," adding in French that Ottawa is intentionally listing people in the top ranks.

"For us it's important that we target particularly those people, because it's those people who are in charge to make decisions that affect millions of people in Iran and who violate human rights," she said.

Monday evening, Trudeau tweeted that he had spoken with the families of those killed when Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was shot down by Iran's Revolutionary Guards shortly after it took off from Tehran in January 2020. The 176 victims included 55 Canadian citizens, 30 permanent residents and dozens of others with connections to Canada.

"Our government will not rest until the families get the justice, accountability, and answers from the Iranian regime that they deserve," Trudeau said in a statement on Twitter.

The Conservatives have continually urged Ottawa to follow through on a motion the House of Commons adopted in 2018 to designate the Revolutionary Guards, which is part of the country's army, as a terror group.

The government has said it would only do so if security agencies endorsed the move.

Juneau and other experts have argued that targeted economic sanctions are more enforceable than designating entire organizations under terrorism laws.

"Overall it is a useful step forward," he said of the sanctions announced Monday.

"We do know that a number of regime officials in Iran do have dealings here, family members here, bank accounts and so on."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 3, 2022.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press