10 years into sanctions, Iranian diaspora get the runaround - New Canadian Media
Consular services provided to Iranians through the interests sections only
The Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington, D.C., deals with over 1.5 million Iranians' consular services annually in the United States alone. (Screenshot of the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran website)

10 years into sanctions, Iranian diaspora get the runaround

Iranians can only deal with the Iranian Interests Section in Washington, D.C., a costly and cumbersome process that can leave many in impossible situations.

After returning to Canada from Iran in June of last year, Hamed Samadi realized there was an issue with the power-of-attorney letter he had provided to his father back home to help sell a car. 

But what should have been a relatively routine procedure consisting of him sending the required paperwork over, instead became an ordeal for Samadi and his parents since Canada has no offices offering consular services to Iranian-Canadians. 

“If we had a consular office here in Toronto or Ottawa, I could get it to them within a day,” Samadi told New Canadian Media. “Instead, I had to communicate with a very busy Iranian office in Washington.” 

The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates there are about 400,000 Iranians in Canada, including citizens, permanent residents, students and visitors. According to Canada’s 2016 census, there are 170,755 people of Iranian origin and another 39,650 with multiple origins, one of them being Iranian, for a total of 210,405 Canadians, the Canadian Encyclopedia reports. 

But for any consular services required, they must contact the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Embassy of Pakistan, in Washington, D.C., and communicate through couriers. 

However, the Iranian Interests Section in Washington is responsible for handling over 1.5 million Iranians’ consular services in the United States alone, according to an EuroNews report, which means the wait can — and usually is — much longer.

Samadi, for example, had to choose whether to wait in a queue “of about 100 minutes while on a long-distance call, or put in a call back number” and hope for a call.

A last resort 

The National Museum of American Diplomacy defines an “Interest Section” as the “office responsible for protecting the interests of the United States, housed in a third country embassy, in a country with which the United States has no formal diplomatic relations.”

The practice dates back to 16th-century France, according to an essay published in the Intergovernmental Research and Policy Journal, expanding in the 19th century “to provide diplomatic protection for traders and travelers (and)…codified in the (Vienna) Convention on Diplomatic Relations in 1961.”

“Because of its advantages, the interest section began to spread rapidly and has since been used tentatively as the first step towards restoration following a long period when there was no sustained direct contact … (and) has played a definite and constructive role in sustaining bilateral relationships between nations,” writes Emmanuel Finbarr Tizhe in “The Role of Disguised Embassies in Diplomatic Relations.” 

In other words, where there is a lack of diplomatic relations, an interest section hosted in a third country’s embassy is the last resort for citizens to get consular support.

Yet, Canada has refused to open one for Iran since 2012, when the two nations severed diplomatic ties following the rise of political tensions. The abrupt move was the only one taken in the Western world, with major Canadian allies like France and Germany deciding to continue diplomatic relations.

Impossible situation

Since then, it’s been ordinary Iranians like Samadi who are paying the price through a process that is costly, time consuming, and that can put Iranians in an impossible situation. For example, if a visitor loses their passport or money, or needs support in courts or to cover accidents, there is no one within the country to provide immediate support. 

In Samadi’s case, he sent his documents to the Iranian Interests Section to fix the power-of-attorney issue, but he was surprised when he realized that it was going to be a matter of months instead of weeks. 

“As soon as I realized that, I thought about my parents – they were both old and it was in the midst of the pandemic,” he says, adding that he worried about them contracting COVID. 

Additionally, while his passport was on transit, in Washington, he was effectively banned from traveling to his home country. Fortunately, he says, nothing happened to his parents – but not everyone is as lucky. 

Diplomatic snubbing

There has been continuous political hostility between Iran and the U.S. for more than four decades. It started with the Iranian Islamic Revolution, which removed the pro-U.S. regime in Iran, and then escalated with the capturing of U.S. diplomats. Since then, the U.S. has imposed some of the toughest sanctions in the world against Iran. 

But Canada’s hostilities date back only to around 2012, making the snubbing that much more curious. 

Asked why Canada has failed to at least open an interest section within its own borders, Global Affairs Canada sent an email statement which ignored the fact that there is a need for consular services in Canada. Instead, it shifted responsibility onto Iran, stating that “since 2012, Iran has had the opportunity to improve the delivery of its consular services through its Special Interests Section in the Pakistani Embassy in Washington.” 

The statement also said Canadians in Iran who need consular and passport services can do so through the Embassy of Canada to Turkey. 

“Canadian-Iranians can also access services through Canada’s Consulate in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Furthermore, Italy acts as Canada’s protecting power in Iran, representing Canada’s interests to the Government of Iran, including providing consular assistance to Canadian nationals in Iran,” the statement reads.

No movement on the issue

Moslem Noori, the president of the Iranian-Canadian Congress (ICC), says the organization has for years tried to get the government to “resolve this issue,” including through a 2016 petition that garnered more than 16,000 signatures requesting reestablishing of diplomatic relations with Iran.

Another campaign in 2021 also saw Iranian-Canadians email their MPs “asking for easier access to consular services for Iranian Canadians.”

“With this,” Noori told NCM, “hundreds of Iranian-Canadians sent their concerns to MPs.”

Yet, nothing has been done about the issue, even as — or perhaps because — Canada has criticized the Iranian government over human rights violations and has initiated United Nations resolutions against the same. 

Meanwhile, the Canadian government continues to ignore the basic rights of hundreds of thousands of Iranians across the diaspora in Canada and creating more difficulties for those in Iran who are forced to travel to neighbouring countries for the simplest of consular and visa-related procedures every year.

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A freelance journalist, Hamid Moghimi lives and works in Toronto with over two decades of writing experience.

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