Monday, May 22, 2006

Eyes of Tehranto watching Iran

Estanislao Oziewicz, The Globe and Mail:
'Yes, this is Tehranto," laughed Frida Shahroki, an optometrist's assistant in a second-floor shop in a strip plaza -- at the top end of Toronto's spine -- that serves as a market beacon for one of the world's largest community of Iranian exiles.

As the Iranians shop and do business along Yonge Street north of Finch Avenue, the unmistakable signs in Persian are a constant reminder of their homeland, which, in recent months, has been at the centre of a thorny international controversy over the Islamic regime's nuclear ambitions.

The United States and its European allies are trying to get Iran to end its uranium-enrichment program, which Washington fears is leading to the building of nuclear weapons.

With Iran's Islamic leadership spitting defiance, members of the United Nations Security Council are trying to draw up a package of benefits and possible sanctions.

In Canada, among the more than 100,000 Iranian-Canadians (most of them in the Toronto area, Vancouver and Montreal), there is anguish that, short of a diplomatic solution, the United States could take military action to destroy Iran's nuclear sites.

Iranian community groups say their numbers are closer to 200,000, which is not surprising since the last census was in 2001.

"People here don't trust the regime at all, so you can't give them a knife [nuclear weapons]," said Hassan Zerehi, editor-in-chief of Shahrvand, the self-proclaimed largest Persian-language newspaper in North America. "But a military strike, a war, would be the worst scenario." READ MORE

Canada's Iranians are remarkably successful, many of them well educated and prosperous. Among them are professionals, academics, entrepreneurs and business people. Most were part of the exodus after the 1979 Islamic revolution, although there was a smaller wave in the 1960s.

An implacable opponent of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and of the current regime in Tehran is Saeed Rahnema, a York University political scientist. He said a U.S.-led military strike against Iran would serve only to shore up the powerful mullahs leading a bankrupt regime that will collapse under its own weight.

"I personally think that a regime like Iran should not have the capability of producing a nuclear weapon because it is a brutal regime; it's uncontrollable, you don't know how it's going to use it. . . . [But] Iranians themselves will change this regime. The economic situation is in shambles now. There's no investment, money is leaving, the Iranian brain drain continues and [the government] will collapse," he said.

At the same time, Mr. Rahnema is suspicious of U.S. attempts to force its notions of democracy on countries such as Iran. He said the recently proposed $75-million (U.S.) congressional program to support democratic forces in Iran and undermine the mullahs' regime is a misguided strategy that will lead only to more suppression of internal opposition.

"I question the intent of the American administration to want real democracy. They want a type of government that is pro-American, and if it's authoritarian, anti-democratic but pro-American, they couldn't care less."

Within the Iranian community, there are differences of opinion on Iran's nuclear program. All those interviewed believe that Iran has a right to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes. Some go further and say that since India, Pakistan, France and others have nuclear weapons, why shouldn't Iran?

"I don't know why the United States is concerned about nuclear weapons in Iran. I don't think they want to use these weapons against other countries. Maybe it's just for defence," said Shahrzed Mirzaei, an administrator for a real-estate office in the Tehranto plaza. The walls are covered with posters for the performance of Iranian pop icon Googoosh at the Air Canada Centre on June 3.

Lili Nabavi, who hosts two programs on the Persian radio station Radio Seda-Ye Iran, is an architect by training. She arrived in Canada in 1991.

She said Iran's oil reserves are limited and her homeland needs a nuclear program to produce electricity. She pointed out with pride that Iran has its own home-grown nuclear scientists.

"My heart is so happy for that," said Ms. Nabavi, adding that the United States has no proof that Iran is planning on building nuclear weapons.

Back at the Tehranto strip, which extends north through Thornhill and into southern Richmond Hill, Ms. Shahroki is preparing to move with her two young daughters back to Iran, where her husband, a biomedical engineer, landed a university teaching job 10 months ago.

Ms. Shahroki, who has been in Canada for a decade, said she talks regularly by phone with her friends and family in Iran. Some of them advocate international sanctions as a way of bringing the regime to heel.

"They say, 'I hope for sanctions because I think it will cause changes in the government.' "

Ms. Shahroki does not worry about a military attack once she returns.

"One hundred per cent there will be no war. Germany, France, many countries, are not behind the United States," she said, adding that the United States has its hands full in Iraq.