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Time for Canada to disengage from Iran

By Owen Rathbone
web posted July 28, 2003

Although the Iranian people have demonstrated by the thousands in past weeks for greater democracy and an end to clerical rule in their country, their plight has largely gone unreported in the Western media. The United States, in its resolve to bring terrorists to heel in the Middle East, has stood virtually alone in condemning the gross human rights violations of Iranians at the hands of the mullahs and their extremist supporters.

Given the world's silence, it is not surprising that the Muslim clerics have brutally clamped down on dissent. With few international leaders beyond George Bush and Tony Blair willing to speak out against the atrocities that are occurring in Iran, religious authorities have been virtually given a carte blanche to terrorize the populace to maintain their hold on power. Beatings, abductions, arrests and executions have now become a regular feature of the Iranian political scene.

Canada, unlike its American neighbor to the south, has until recently opted to sit on the sidelines as history has unfolded in Iran. With the Middle Eastern country representing an export market worth some $500 million for Canadian wheat alone, Ottawa has chosen not to side with Iranian demonstrators or join with Washington in condemning the theocracy's human rights infractions. Controlled engagement, as opposed to the U.S. policy of economic isolation, has been Canada's preferred means to effect political change in the rogue nation.

Zahra Kazemi

The death of photojournalist Zahra Kazemi on July 10th, however, has awakened Canadians from their complacency and revealed the futility of continued trade and dialogue as a strategy to promote Iranian political reform. A dual Canadian-Iranian citizen, Kazemi, 54, was arrested while photographing protesters in front of the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran, often called the "Iranian Auschwitz." Brutally beaten by her abductors for refusing to admit she was a "spy," the middle-aged Kazemi died of massive head injuries in a hospital run by the hard-line Revolutionary Guard three weeks after her detention.

Iranian authorities, as would be expected, have attempted to cover up and downplay the incident, much to the anger of Kazemi's family and the Canadian government. Initially, the official Iranian news agency listed Kazemi's cause of death as an accidental "brain stroke" that resulted from a fall. Under pressure, however, the government admitted it was a beating that caused the photographer's death, promising to look into the matter.

The exact circumstances of Kazemi's demise remain shrouded in mystery, given that the body was quickly buried in Iran and a full and impartial investigation has yet to be conducted. Kazemi's son, Stephan Hachemi, has asked that his mother's body be exhumed and sent to Canada for examination and burial, but the Iranian government has so far refused to honor this simple request. Iranian officials claim that Ms. Kazemi's mother wished her daughter buried in the family hometown of Shiraz, though reports indicate the elderly woman was pressured into allowing the body to be buried there.

In a sign that the Canadian government may abandon its policy of engagement and adopt a harder line with Tehran, Prime Minister Jean Chretien expressed Canada's displeasure with Iran's handling of the affair and recalled Canadian ambassador Philip MacKinnon. Canada is also presently mulling over the possibility of imposing economic sanctions on Iran and slapping restrictions on Iranian business people and students traveling to Canada.

Iran's Foreign Ministry has called Canada's decision to recall its ambassador as "unacceptable" and urged the Canadian government to tone down its "irrational" and "hasty" comments. To add insult to injury, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Moussavi-Lari, a cabinet minister assigned by President Mohammed Khatami to investigate the affair, said the case "has nothing to do with Canada" since Iran does not recognize dual citizenship. Khatami as well has chided Canada for allegedly overreacting.

Such official reactions not only represent a diplomatic affront to Canada, but also reveal the moral bankruptcy and callousness of the clerical regime and the lengths Iran's rulers will go to maintain their hold on power. So called "moderates" in the government such as Khatami appear to be no different from the hardliners who pull their strings behind the scenes.

If Canada truly wishes to take a stand for justice and freedom, it is time for Ottawa to disengage from Iran and encourage its allies to do the same. As recent atrocities in Iran such as the Kazemi murder illustrate, dialogue and trade have done nothing to alter the current regime's behavior. Only economic sanctions and overt support for anti-mullah forces will change this ancient land for the better. Greater democracy, not terror, must be encouraged in Iran: Zahra Kazemi's death should not be in vain.

Owen Rathbone is a political commentator based in Osaka, Japan. He can be contacted at owenrathbone@yahoo.com.

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