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First published in  Now Lebabnon
Canada
September 13, 2012

Iran’s sloppy spying

by
Michael Weiss

Controlled Engagement Policy may sound like a legal condition for Tom Cruise’s visitation rights with his daughter, but up until last week it was how Canada defined diplomacy with Iran. Basically, the relationship was one of North American nose-holding as the only real business Ottawa got up to with Tehran was over human rights, Iran’s nuclear program, its nefarious mucking about in the Middle East, and the 2003 case of a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist who died (or was killed) in Iranian custody.

There were never any ambassadors stationed in either country, just representations. But all that’s over now. Citing Tehran’s violation of UN resolutions, its military assistance of the Assad regime in Syria, and its chronic anti-Semitism and incitement to genocide, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird said: “Canada has closed its embassy in Iran, effective immediately, and declared personae non gratae all remaining Iranian diplomats in Canada.”

This bold Maple Leaf maneuver led to feverish speculation that the Canadians knew something the rest of us didn’t, perhaps about Israeli or American war plans in Persia. But the truth is simpler and more mundane: Canada killed diplomacy with Iran because Iran was using Canada as a base for spying, as the excellent Macleans journalist Michael Petrou said in a study put out by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

According to Petrou, the Iranian Embassy in Ottawa is “a busy hub from where Iran seeks—both covertly and overtly—to spy on anti-regime activists in Canada, shape public policy, and build relations with influential Iranian-Canadians, as well as politicians, students, academics and police.” And the Iranian regime was stupid enough to acknowledge the fact. Hamid Mohammadi, a cultural affairs counselor at the embassy, said in an interview in July that his goal was to encourage Iranian-Canadians to “occupy high-level key positions” and “resist being melted into the dominant Canadian culture.”

Well, you can’t do both unless you’re up to no good.

Replicating the tactics used by the Comintern, Iran couches its covert spy recruitment and infiltration operations in the language of “peace” and “friendship,” typically channeled through thinly disguised cultural outreach.

Take Akbar Manoussi, the self-proclaimed “director general” of the “Iranian Cultural Centre,” which is (or was) run out of the Ottawa embassy. A man of many dubiously substantiated titles, Manoussi had attended at least one conference in Iran hosted by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad designed to teach the attendees how to improve the theocracy’s global image. And then he nearly hoodwinked members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police into attending his own “International Peace Conference” in Ottawa, a grim-sounding affair that, as Petrou put it, “showcas[ed] anti-Semites, at least one 9/11 conspiracy kook, and cheerleaders for the Islamic Republic.”

Another dodgy outfit was the “Centre for Iranian Studies” which was no such thing, but rather a front for the ayatollahs set up in 2008 by Fazel Larijani, the cultural attaché at the Iranian Embassy, which also funded it. Despite being located in a “modest bungalow in north Toronto,” the real presence of the center was its professional-looking website, which suggested affiliations with a host of respectable Iranian-Canadian academics who were displeased to discover that their names and careers had been co-opted for a sophisticated propaganda offensive.

Most Iranians in the diaspora are looking to escape the barbarities of Khomeinism, not relive them offshore. However, there’s lately been an upsurge in wealthy regime-sympathizers immigrating to North America. Petrou names Mahmoud Reza Khavari, the former head of two Iranian banks, which were blacklisted by the United Nations for their involvement in helping Tehran acquire nuclear and ballistic missile technology. The US Treasury Department also sanctioned both banks for their affiliation with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, a designated terrorist organization that recently graduated from advising insurgents on how to construct improved explosive devices in Iraq to helping Bashar al-Assad’s regulars snipe Syrian civilians. Khavari was made a Canadian citizen in 2005 despite having jobs that kept him in Iran. But that’s come in handy since he was implicated in a $2.6 billion embezzlement scandal back home and had to relocate permanently to Toronto.

For Iranian-Canadians, it must be doubly sickening to see well-off regime stooges follow them abroad only to pour millions into Canadian real estate, even as international sanctions cripple their native economy. Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University and the co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, put it best: “It is ironic that while Ahmadinejad condemns ‘Western imperialism,’ his inner circle has quietly established itself in Canada to enjoy ill-gotten fortunes with impunity.”

It’s been a rough few months for the Islamic Republic. IRGC operatives have blown their own legs off in Thailand and gotten snatched by the Free Syrian Army, somehow not believing that now was an ideal time for peaceful Shiites to be making pilgrimage to Damascus. But that this latest infiltration scheme was being conducted right under the watchful, neighborly eye of the Great Satan—now said to be enjoying an unprecedented degree of intelligence coordination with Canada—adds to Iran’s recent track record of sloppiness.

Michael Weiss

About Michael Weiss

A widely published journalist, Weiss has expertise in the Israel-Palestine conflict and human rights in the Middle East. He recently wrote HJS's Media Briefing: "Fatah-Hamas Reconciliation: A Preliminary Assessment". Weiss has been published in Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Daily Telegraph, The New Criterion, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Prospect, Standpoint, Democratiya and The New Republic. He keeps a regular blog on foreign policy and the Middle East for the Daily Telegraph and one on culture for The New Criterion.

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