MultimediaIranian embassy had direct role in funding controversial cultural...

Iranian embassy had direct role in funding controversial cultural centre in Ottawa, legal battle over assets reveals

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National Post: Before it was shut down two years ago, the Iranian embassy in Ottawa funded a controversial cultural centre in the capital, a former senior administrator at the vacant diplomatic post has acknowledged in a sworn affidavit.

While on paper the Iranian Cultural Centre was run by the non-profit Mobin Foundation, the administrator described for the first time how the embassy paid the salaries of teachers who worked there and “sometimes paid other expenses.”

“The embassy was obviously involved with the cultural centre,” Jamal El-Husseini wrote in the affidavit obtained by the National Post. “The centre also operated a Farsi school for children. The teachers at the Farsi school were paid by the embassy, and the embassy sometimes paid other expenses on behalf of the Mobin Foundation.”

But while its website said its mission was to “provide training and education of Iran’s art and artifacts” as well as its “culture and traditions,” the centre also hosted events that promoted the Islamic revolution that brought theocratic rule to Iran.

The confirmation of the regime’s direct role in bankrolling the cultural centre is also noteworthy because of the embassy’s stated intention to recruit Canadians to serve Iran’s interests under the guise of cultural outreach programs.

In a Farsi-language interview two months before the embassy was closed, the cultural attaché encouraged Iranians to “occupy high-level key positions” in the Canadian government and “resist being melted into the dominant Canadian culture.”

The administrator’s statement is part of a legal defence Iran is mounting against an Ontario court order that awarded the cultural centre and the rest of Tehran’s non-diplomatic assets in Canada to victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, terrorist groups sponsored by the Islamic republic.

Iran is arguing its Canadian properties and bank accounts are actually diplomatic assets and therefore cannot be seized. It also says it was unable to defend itself against the claims of terror victims due to Ottawa’s “unfriendly attitude” and failure to provide a translation of the materials.

Asked whether funding the cultural centre would be considered appropriate diplomatic behaviour, the Department of Foreign Affairs declined to comment, saying doing so would be inappropriate since the matter was before the courts.

But Mr. El-Husseini, who had worked at the embassy since 2003 and was its executive administrative manager, said there was “nothing surreptitious about the operation of the cultural centre. To the contrary, it was publicized broadly in the community as a non-profit centre that was used for community events, charitable events and cultural events like weddings, religious ceremonies and Iranian holidays,” he wrote.

Although the embassy was shut when Canada severed diplomatic ties with Iran in September 2012, Mr. El-Husseini was not expelled like his counterparts because he held Canadian citizenship. He said Iran had since appointed him caretaker of its properties in Canada.

Ties between the two countries were already limited by the time Canada cut off diplomatic relations, but the affidavit depicts the embassy as a bustling place. In addition to the customary consular and political branches, the embassy operated a “cultural branch” and a “higher education branch” that was “responsible for all Iranian students who came to study in Canada,” paying their tuition and living expenses and providing “protection” for them, Mr. El-Husseini wrote.

“Iran would fund the embassy’s branches according to their budgets if necessary,” he wrote. “When fund transfers from Iran were necessary, Iran would forward funds in euros and the embassy would transfer the euros to Canadian dollars in the various Canadian accounts.”

The court filings are part of Iran’s attempt to challenge the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which came into force in 2012 and opened the door for victims to seek redress from governments that sponsor the terrorist groups that harmed them.

Since it has long financed, armed and trained Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran became the first target under the law, and in March, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ordered sheriffs to seize bank accounts and properties owned by Tehran so they could be shared among victims.

The assets include 14 bank accounts worth more than $2.6-million and properties in Toronto and Ottawa that the Department of Foreign Affairs has deemed non-diplomatic. Iran had ignored the proceedings but facing the loss of millions, it has belatedly hired a Toronto law firm to fight the case.

A flurry of affidavits are now being compiled for commercial court in Toronto, one of them written by a University of Toronto professor who argued the federal legislation that allowed terror victims to sue was “a violation of international law.”

Mohammed Asbaghi, of the Centre for International Legal Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, wrote in another affidavit that the legal papers served on Tehran were not translated into Persian and that Canada had breached its “international commitments” by not protecting Iranian assets.

 

Responding to the suit was complicated by the suspension of diplomatic ties, he said, and even hiring a lawyer was problematic because of the sanctions imposed on the Iranian regime over its nuclear ambitions.

 

“Under these complicated circumstances, and in particular because of the Canadian government’s unfriendly attitude and negative perception of Iran, selection of a lawyer in Canada was not a straightforward task.”

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