To most Canadians, the news that Iran has laid charges against a frail Canadian-Iranian academic will seem both cruel and absurd. Indeed, it looks like a hostage-taking by the Iranian regime.
Homa Hoodfar is a 65-year-old scholar suffering from a rare neurological disease called myasthenia gravis, which causes severe muscle weakness. Since her arrest on June 6, no lawyer and no family member has seen Hoodfar. How long she can survive without her medication is unknown.
Her family has not been told what the charges are but thinks they somehow involve "dabbling in feminism and security matters."
But figuring out what that means is not the point. Using Hoodfar as a pawn is the point. She is in Tehran's ghastly Evin prison as one of a fresh batch of bargaining chips to trade with the West — and also to send a message to Iranians that the hardliners of the Revolutionary Guard can still do as they please.
Three other pawns were also indicted on Monday: an Iranian-American businessman who wants closer ties with the U.S., an Iranian-British woman who works for the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters and a Lebanese resident of the U.S.
The charges in those cases, too, are as unclear as they are immaterial. This is not about crime; it's about leverage. The arrests will replenish Iran's supply of hostages, run down by a prisoner swap in last year's nuclear deal, in which the U.S. traded seven Iranians for four Americans.
For good measure, the regime has also taken aim at another potential victim, the prominent sculptor Parviz Tanavoli. Now 78 and considered a leading cultural ambassador for Iran, Tanavoli is another dual Canadian-Iranian citizen. His passport was seized July 2 at Tehran's Imam Khomeini airport as he tried to leave for an engagement at the British Museum. Tanavoli has not yet been charged, but he told the Globe and Mail "they told me my sculptures are examples of disturbing the public peace."
Defending the veil
A glance at Homa Hoodfar's academic work makes her arrest seem even more absurd. She frequently condemned Western prejudice against the Muslim veil, which she insisted is often a free choice — even a liberating one — rather than a symbol of oppression.
In fact, her niece, Amanda Ghahremani, told CBC News that Hoodfar was "very generous in her comments about the Iranian government and the policies they've enacted. She's given credit to them when they've enacted policies that have benefited women and women's issues."
A similar account comes from a Toronto-based writer who knows both Hoodfar's work and Evin prison: Marina Nemat, who was held there in 1982 at the age of 16 and wrote a bestseller called Prisoner of Tehran.
Nemat told CBC News that Hoodfar's work is "purely academic. I couldn't find anything in there that would be considered anti-Islam or anti-Islamic Republic. If anything, I think she was actually sort of positive toward the Islamic Republic of Iran."
But why a Canadian?
Of course, Canada's relations with Iran are in poor shape. After the sacking of the British Embassy in Tehran, the Harper government shut down the Canadian Embassy in 2012. Now, Canada relies on allies to represent its interests.
"We are seeking advice from and working closely with allies in order to best assist Dr. Hoodfar," says a statement from Global Affairs Canada. "Rest assured that this case is a priority for us."
Which is just as well, because it's definitely a priority for the Iranian regime. For Canada, it's about human rights generally and the rights of Hoodfar in particular. But, for Iran, it's existential: it's about the long struggle with the West and with its regional rival, Saudi Arabia.
Cartoons and embassies
In that context, consider what kind of regime we are dealing with. Fresh from hosting a "Holocaust cartoon contest" in May, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, showed in June how highly he values last year's nuclear pact with the so-called P5+1 countries. Khamenei denounced "the U.S., the evil Britain and the damned and cancerous Zionist regime. These are the main enemies."
And the cartoon contest? That was won by a Frenchman named Zeon, who specializes in caricatures of hook-nosed, bloodthirsty Jews. Zeon took first prize with a drawing of a cash register labelled "Shoah Business," which is shown ringing up the number of murdered: six million. It's unlocked by a Star of David key. So the Holocaust is represented as a cash bonanza for the Jews — and it won Zeon his own prize: $12,000 US.
Now, take the government that rewards such grotesque festivals of hate and place it in a struggle for regional supremacy with Saudi Arabia. For the Sunni kingdom, Shia Iran is the arch-enemy and vice versa. Canada averts its gaze from Saudi violations of human rights and is determined to sell the Saudis $15 billion in armoured vehicles. The view from Tehran is that Canada has picked a side — the other side.
All the more reason, then, for Iran to seize a Canadian. Will Hoodfar's release have to await the reopening of the Canadian Embassy? Don't say it can't happen.
Thomas Juneau, a Middle East expert at the University of Ottawa, says "not having an embassy in Tehran makes this hard" — so that may be "the tradeoff that Iran is trying to make."
Opportunity for the government
Another expert says it did no good to close the embassy in the first place. Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist, was arrested in Tehran in 2009 for the crime of reporting on protests that followed the re-election of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Tortured and held for 118 days, Bahari spoke last year in London to the CBC's Nahlah Ayed.
"I think the Canadian Embassy in Tehran should be open as soon as possible," he said.
"The main victims of the lack of … diplomatic relationship between Iran and Canada are innocent Iranian-Canadian citizens, who love Canada and who love Iran at the same time."
Which presents an opportunity for a Liberal government that is already favourably disposed. In June of 2015, in the run-up to the election, Justin Trudeau told CBC's Power & Politics that "I would hope that Canada would be able to reopen its mission" in Tehran.
"As I understand it," Trudeau added, "there were security concerns that led to the closing of the mission, but I'm fairly certain that there are ways to re-engage."
It may be even more certain now.