Anxiety, anticipation in Canada's largest Iranian diaspora as news of Soleimani's killing stuns

Anxiety, anticipation in Canada's largest Iranian diaspora as news of Soleimani's killing stuns

In one of the world's largest Iranian communities outside Iran, news of the killing of one of the country's most notorious figures, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, is being met with a mix of shock, exhilaration and, for many, anxiety.

Toronto, or "Tehranto" is as it's been dubbed by many of the approximately 100,000 people of Iranian descent living in the city, is home to the second-highest concentration of Iranians outside Iran. Only Los Angeles has a larger Iranian community.

Unlike its counterpart south of the border, which saw some of its biggest influxes of Iranians during and in the lead-up to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Toronto Iranian community's ties to its home country are arguably fresher — in large part because immigration to Canada has been a relatively smoother process than to the United States.

Canada, for example, had an embassy in Iran up until 2012, unlike the United States, which severed diplomatic relations with the country in 1980.

"People are very worried," said Mehrdad Ariannejad, who immigrated to Toronto in 1997.

"They're worried about another war breaking out in the Middle East. They're worried about their relatives, innocent people. But at the same time, I think many Iranian people here think as long as this regime is in power, these things are going to happen."

Angelina King/CBC

At an anti-war rally outside the U.S. Consulate in Toronto Saturday, some 100 demonstrators expressed a similar sentiment: concern over what this latest action will mean for Iranians already living under the pressure of U.S. sanctions — something Iranian-Canadian Saman Tabasinejad calls a form of economic warfare. 

As word of the Soleimani's death emerged, Tabasinejad said she immediately phoned her grandmother in Iran. 

"She was scared... there are kids who are scared. You learn this at a very young age in places like Iran — that if a big power like the United States doesn't like you, then your life is at their whim."

"My heart is with my family in Iran, with the millions of people who go to sleep every night fearing that the next morning we're just that much closer to war."

Paul Borkwood/CBC

Still others mourned the loss of Soleimani himself, despite his wars in the region costing thousands of civilian lives.

In Toronto, a candlelight vigil was held by a group of mourners who lit candles at the makeshift memorial for the general, while another group turned out in opposition sparking some tense moments as police kept watch. Toronto police say the event ended peacefully. 

'Tightening the screws'

The news of Soleimani's death exploded across the international headlines and on social media when the U.S. Department of Defence confirmed President Donald Trump had ordered an airstrike on the top Iranian general near Baghdad's airport Thursday. Soleimani, Trump said Friday, had been planning "sinister attacks" on U.S. diplomats and service members.

Soleimani, 62, head of Iran's elite Quds Force — the special operations arm of the Revolutionary Guard — has been described as a shadowy figure in charge of Iran's proxy forces, responsible for fighters backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and for the deaths of U.S. troops in Iraq — among untold other attacks outside of Iran.

And while Trump took to the podium at his Mar-a-Lago resort to proclaim Soleimani's "reign of terror" was over, saying the U.S. acted "to stop a war," Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatolla Ali Khamenei reacted to the news with a warning of "harsh retaliation" for the general's death.

Khamenei also called for three days of public mourning.

But whether Soleimani's death will result in the sort of doomsday escalation that many have speculated about — news of his death saw "World War III" trending on Twitter — the impact on the everyday lives of Iranians in Iran is what many in the diaspora worry about most, says one observer.

"People are held down by the government itself there and now the U.S. is tightening the screws," said Alidad Mafinezam, president of the West Asia Council, a non-profit organization examining North American-Middle Eastern relations through the lens of diasporic communities. 

Yanjun Li/CBC

Mafinezam, who emigrated from Iran in 1983, points out many in Iran were already facing poor living conditions, including a lack of electricity and shortages of fuel and basic necessities.

His fear isn't so much that Thursday's action will spark the next world war, but instead that the situation of Iranians will only worsen as conflict with the U.S. escalates.

Fears of 'societal collapse'

"We're already in a war, but this is a case of societal collapse ... and I think we're headed there," he said. 

Tensions over government-set gasoline prices peaked in November when officials hiked prices by 50 per cent, sending thousands of demonstrators into the streets. Hundreds were killed amid the unrest, with thousands of others injured and detained, according to Amnesty International.

"Iran has really in living memory never been in this bad of a shape ... It is Iranians who are hungry, it is Iranians who are cold," he said. And with Iran and the U.S. "down each other's throats," he says, "this sad tale is going to continue."

Hamid Gharajeh of the Iran Democratic Association believes the only imminent collapse is that of Iran's clerical rule. 

Angelina King/CBC

"This is the beginning of the end of their atrocities," he said, adding he expects Soleimani's death will energize protests in the country. "It's a catalyst for people to feel that we can stand up to these Revolutionary Guard members."

Asked if the U.S. taking action unilaterally against Soleimani worried him, he replied that's not a concern. 

"Any action is better than no action," he said, adding he would like to see Canada come out even more strongly against the Iranian regime. 

"Canada has long been concerned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force, led by ... Soleimani, whose aggressive actions have had a destabilizing effect in the region and beyond," Canada's minister of foreign affairs, François-Philippe Champagne, said Friday as he called on all sides "to exercise restraint and pursue de-escalation."

Calls for Canada to speak out more loudly

But for Pouyan Tabasinejad, vice-president of the Iranian Canadian Congress, the U.S. intervention is "very concerning."

"It's just a powder keg," he said. 

"For the Iranian Canadian community, they can see that there is a real chance that tensions further escalate and frankly the safety and wellbeing of their relatives in Iran are at risk ... The threat of war is extremely real and as we've seen in the history of intervention in the Middle East, often what happens is the country gets turned into a battlefield for various proxy forces with a litany of human rights abuses and bloodshed on top of that.

"Nobody wants to see that happening in Iran," he said. 

Tabasinejad says he wants Canada to take a more forceful stand — to condemn the Trump administration for its action. 

Rozen Nicolle/CBC

Ariannejad says those he's spoken to in Toronto hold different opinions, some more fearful about speaking out than others. What is clear, he says: "Since this regime has come to power, our Iranian passport has lost its value, the Iranian currency has lost its value, and I think unfortunately there are many warmongering officials in power on both sides, Iran and the U.S."

His dream is of a stable Iran that can one day play a role in bringing peace to region.

"That is my only hope."