Protests in Iran, both for against the government in Tehran, sparked worldwide actions in solidarity with the Iranian people. Given the country’s proud tradition of diverse revolutionary and progressive movements, it’s no surprise these support rallies in Canada became the scene of sharp debates and even confrontations. But what are the primary responsibilities of people in Canada in responding to the protests in Iran? In this op-ed, Sara Sagaii and Nyusha Samiei argue that the Canadian government must not be let off the hook for its actions, past and present, against Iran.
On Jan. 6 in Vancouver, a group of about 10 Iranian anti-war activists attended a rally in support of Iranian protesters at which we were invited to speak.
We had prepared signs in support of freedom to protest and freedom for political prisoners in Iran as well as signs against sanctions and Western intervention. And we brought a banner that said: “U.S./NATO Hands Off Iran.”
Abuse and harassment
We knew we would be met with opposition from those supporting the restoration of the monarchy or foreign intervention, but we didn’t expect to be attacked as soon as we unfurled our banner on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Our banner was torn off its poles, our signs were confiscated, and we were shoved, dragged, pushed down the stairs, spat on, and verbally abused.
Except for a few who intervened, most people including the police stood idly by and some encouraged this violent assault by labelling us agents of the Islamic Republic. For days after the rally we were being targeted, doxxed and harassed online.
We became the target of such attacks because amidst a fierce opposition from outside to bring Iran to its knees we dared to stand up against foreign interference and in defence of Iranian sovereignty and self-determination. We did so because we believe our position resonates with the majority of Iranians in the diaspora.
The bitter irony in the actions of groups that claim to advocate for freedom of speech and women’s rights in Iran, while assaulting young women and taking away our speaking turn at the rally, tells us whatever “revolution” they are promising is pie in the sky and not what will help lift the economic, social or political burdens off of average Iranians.
At a time when the U.S.-backed opposition abroad is hell bent on demonizing the entirety of Iranian society, to justify increasing pressure on, isolation of and eventually military action against Iran, progressive people in the West need to stand in solidarity with Iranians by resisting the co-optation of the recent or future protests against austerity and corruption towards such goals. In what follows, we explain why we believe progressive solidarity with Iranian protesters requires supporting the lifting of international sanctions and opposing Trump’s threats to the 2015 nuclear deal. We encourage readers to distribute and share this appeal with your elected representative in the Canadian parliament.
Double enemies: austerity and sanctions
The widespread protests that erupted in Iran on Dec. 30, lasting for 7 days and leaving 21 people dead, took many by surprise and defied routine diagnoses.
Despite the complexity of analyses, what was widely agreed upon was that the root cause of the protests were to be found in grievances over the neoliberal policies of the current administration as well as economic instability, corruption, and mismanagement.
Such grievances should be recognizable to struggling people the world over. For four decades, neoliberal policies of austerity, privatization, and cuts to services and subsidies have waged a war on the underclasses everywhere, have taken from the poor and given to the rich, widened the wealth gap, and in many places such as right here in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside have made extreme poverty a norm.
However, what’s often left out of the mainstream narrative is that on top of the impositions of the local government, the Iranian people have been made to doubly suffer due to the impact of international sanctions.
For forty years, Western-led sanctions have crippled the economic capacity of Iran and even though the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the six world powers promised to lift them, Trump’s non-compliance with the deal and repeated threats to “rip it up” has endangered such prospects. As a result, necessary capital investments in Iran remain deterred.
Anger over the unfulfilled promises of the deal should therefore be taken into account as a contributing factor to the recent protests. In turn, the protests expose the extreme suffering imposed on regular Iranians as the direct result and expressed purpose of the sanctions as well as by the American betrayal of the 2015 nuclear deal.
Naturally, when Trump tweeted his “support” for Iranians during the protests, the thinly veiled opportunism and hypocrisy of the U.S. administration aggravated many who took to Twitter to respond.
Canada: U.S. ally in assaults and threats against Iran
In 2012, then prime minister Stephen Harper called Iran “the most serious threat to international peace” and cut diplomatic ties with the country.
At the same time the Conservative Party cynically praised the state of Israel, despite its dark record of violating human rights and international law, and continued to sign arms deals with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — a country that has been waging a genocidal war on the small and defenseless country of Yemen for 33 months and counting, and is the main exporter of religious fundamentalism and terrorism in the region and beyond.
It is clear that the exceptionalism that Canada and most of the Western world exercise over Iran is not due to sympathy with Iranians, concerns over human rights, or the combating of religious extremism as is often claimed, but rather due to U.S. and Canadian interests in dominating and exploiting the region which are countered by the existence of an independent and sovereign Iran. This exceptionalist narrative is intended not to make the state of Iran cave to its own people’s interests, but to make the nation of Iran cave to Western interests.
Since 2015, the Liberal government has talked of reinstating diplomatic relations with Iran but has so far failed to deliver on its promises. Despite lifting some economic sanctions in early 2016 following the nuclear deal, other sanctions remain in place and Bill S-219 that is currently being reviewed at the Senate threatens to introduce a new set of non-nuclear sanctions.
Meanwhile the Iranian embassy in Ottawa remains closed. The combined effect of such policies serves Trump’s purpose of suspending the benefits of the nuclear deal for Iran and intensifying tension and economic pressure on the country.
What Canadians can do
Given the geopolitical circumstances outlined above and in total solidarity with the Iranian people who have taken bravely to the streets to demand an end to their suffering, we encourage the Canadian public and politicians to:
Strongly condemn any attempts by international powers to exploit the unrests in Iran for their own regional aspirations; oppose any form of interference, incitement or involvement from Western as well as Saudi and Israeli states in the domestic affairs of a sovereign country; call on the Canadian government to normalize relations with Iran, drop the remaining sanctions, including the proposed Bill S-219, which hurt the most vulnerable sections of the population the most, and to re-open the embassies in Tehran and Ottawa.
Call on the Iranian government to allow and encourage the natural and constitutionally protected expression of protest and take meaningful steps toward mitigating the protesters’ rightful grievances.
Extend our sincere condolences to the families who’ve lost loved ones in these conflicts; and while sympathizing with the anger of protesters, do not condone kind of violence and vandalization, since the victims of such acts are more often than not innocent ordinary people who get caught in the crossfire.
Support Iranian people’s right to self-determination and ability to carry out a domestic struggle in safety, security and free from the threat of war and increased sanctions.
Sara Sagaii is an Iranian housing and anti-war activist and a graduate student at SFU School of Communication in Vancouver.
Nyusha Samiei is an Iranian writer and poet based in Vancouver. She holds two masters’ degrees in international history focused on Middle East and feminist movements in Iran.