By Negar Mojtahedi and Brennan Leffler Global News
Published November 11, 2023
18 min read
Hamed Esmaeilion has to watch his back wherever he goes — unable to escape the oppressive and violent regime that rules his homeland of Iran, even when he’s in Canada.
When he first arrived in 2010 with his wife Parisa and daughter Reera, Esmaeilion thought he had come to the safest country in the world.
“But it’s not,” he says.
His wife and daughter were among 176 people killed, including 55 Canadian citizens, when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on Jan. 8, 2020. That shattered any illusions the Ontario man had that his family would live happily ever after in Canada.
“Where is my wife and my daughter now? They’re buried in the cemetery in Richmond Hill, just because of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” says Esmaeilion, who has channelled his profound grief into action, demanding answers and accountability for the loss of his loved ones.
Soon, the watchful eyes of the regime focused on him in Canada. He started to get threats on social media, and even more chilling, multiple phone calls from the same person.
“The last conversation I had with that guy, he was like, let’s talk about the last moments of your wife and your daughter.”
He says the worst part is, he was told police resources are stretched too thin to protect him.
“I had (a) conversation with RCMP officers in January and I said, do you have any recommendations for me because I see the threats are going on, especially social media, and they said to me that they have no resources. They’re busy with Ukraine, Russia, China.”
As revealed during a lengthy investigation by Global News’ current affairs program The New Reality, the threats against Esmaeilion are not unusual for critics of the Islamic Republic, especially among the Iranian diaspora in Canada.
In fact, The New Reality heard from Iranian Canadians, legal experts, and security and intelligence sources who say Canada has an especially big problem with hundreds, maybe thousands, of potentially dangerous regime-connected officials here on Canadian soil.
“Islamic Republic agents are everywhere in this country. Everywhere,” Esmaeilion says.
Prominent Iranian American journalist and human rights activist Masih Alinejad tells The New Reality she was given a bone-chilling warning from the FBI: don’t travel to Canada.
“That’s heartbreaking. Canada should be safe,” Alinejad says.
Alinejad is no stranger to threats.
Exiled in 2009, she has long been a thorn in the Islamic Republic’s side, calling the compulsory hijab their ‘Berlin Wall.’ Her criticism has put her in extreme danger.
In 2021, the FBI thwarted an alleged kidnapping plot against Alinejad — and the following year, an alleged assassination attempt. The FBI said both plots were linked to the Iranian regime. One of the suspects, Khalid Mehdiyev, was caught on surveillance video outside Alinejad’s Brooklyn home, and police say they found a loaded AK-47 in his car. In the indictment, authorities say Mehdiyev travelled to the house “repeatedly.” Mehdiyev pleaded not guilty in February.
Since the alleged assassination plot was thwarted, Alinejad been under police protection, moving from safe house to safe house in New York City. She’s in danger, but she’s protected.
Canada is another matter altogether.
“FBI told me that as far as you are in America, we will protect you. But we suggest you not to go to Canada. It won’t be safe for you.”
Gabriel Noronha served as special advisor on Iran to the U.S. State Department from 2019 to 2021. His assessment of the Islamic Republic’s presence in Canada is blunt.
“What I constantly hear from Iranian Americans, they say the problem in Canada is far, far worse than you can imagine,” Noronha says.
Alinejad told The New Reality that if she absolutely insists on travelling to Canada, the FBI advised her it would need months to arrange her security.
Noronha says that threat assessment is more consistent with the preparations necessary to visit countries in the Middle East where Iranian affiliates are known to operate freely.
“That sounds like if she were going to Turkey or Iraq. It shouldn’t be the case that when you’re going to Canada that you have to spend months in advance making sure that you’re going to be safe,” he says.
And there have been troubling threats in Canada.
As reported by Reuters in November 2022, Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), said it was investigating reports of “credible” death threats from Iran against Canadians.
In 2021, the FBI indictment against Alinejad’s alleged kidnappers said three individuals were targeted in Canada but they were not identified, and no reference was made to their respective professions. The indictment did, however, identify those targeted as being critical of Iran.
Alinejad revealed more troubling information about the danger facing Iranian Canadian dissidents, in yet another bombshell revelation: “The FBI told me that the same group who are trying to kidnap me on U.S. soil that were the same group from Revolutionary Guards in Iran trying to harass, kidnap and kill Canadians.”
Alinejad carries a lot of guilt that she is protected while Iranian Canadian dissidents like Esmaeilion don’t get the same kind of security she does.
“They send death threats to Hamed and many other activists. Why? Because they don’t see any consequence,” Alinejad says.
From constant threats on social media to phone calls, Esmaeilion knows he is at risk.
“If something happens to me, nobody can help me. So you feel helpless.”
And just this last August, only a few months after The New Reality first interviewed Esmaeilion, the reason for that vulnerable feeling was hammered home like never before.
A former senior Iranian minister, Seyed Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi, is believed to have visited Canada, having been spotted in the background of a TV news report on Quebec tourism, and then caught on video visiting Casa Loma in Toronto.
He was Iran’s health minister from 2013 to 2019 under then-president Hassan Rouhani, the head of the same administration responsible for killing Esmaeilion’s family and 53 other Canadians.
Esmaeilion saw that footage on social media and couldn’t believe it. He was furious that Hashemi was apparently allowed to roam the country freely, visiting tourist sites in Montreal and Toronto. There are reports he was also spotted in Vancouver.
“It was outrageous for the whole community,” he says.
Esmaeilion called out the Canadian government and also contacted the RCMP.
“He was not an ordinary person. You see that he had a photo with Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, which is a terrorist organization in this country.”
In response to Esmaeilion’s calls to have him deported, Hashemi reportedly fired back with a threat. He was quoted in an Iranian magazine saying: “I will retaliate against the treachery of the foreign media outlets and Hamed Esmaeilion.”
“It was direct threats and it was outrageous,” Esmaeilion says. “It was. And it made me angry, actually. Why is he here and he threatens everybody he wants?”
Hashemi did not respond to The New Reality when asked for comment on his trip to Canada and his alleged threat to Esmaeilion.
In late August 2023, Canada’s Immigration Minister Marc Miller finally weighed in. Miller posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that Hashemi’s application for temporary residence was denied under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), citing that he was barred for three years due to “Iran’s disregard for human rights.”
“That’s a totally unserious response,” U.S. security expert Gabriel Noronha says.
“In three years, you can go on vacation in the rest of Europe and then come back to Canada an unchanged man. The issue is, this person should be permanently blocked and every other Iranian official like him should be permanently blocked.”
Even an immigration lawyer like Ramin Joubin can’t figure out how Hashemi was allowed to enter in the first place.
“You know, I really can’t say how that guy got in. I really can’t say. So it boggles my mind, too, how that individual got into Canada. I don’t know,” Joubin says.
“I think that it’s just a slap in the face to the community here.”
The debacle even caught the attention of Iranian state TV, which openly mocked Canada’s permissive immigration system in a news piece.
During the segment, the anchor said in Farsi that “the Canadian system, as you know, is such that you first can get a visitor visa. You get there and start working, then (permanent) residence, and you will be in the company of folks like Mr. (Mahmoud Reza) Khavari and all the others there.”
The Iranian state TV anchor was referring to one of the first cases of someone linked to the Iranian regime in Canada: Mahmoud Khavari.
Khavari was the CEO of Iran’s national bank, known as Bank Melli. He reportedly fled to Canada in 2011 after being accused of embezzling $2.6 billion.
Khavari has been wanted by Interpol since 2016. In 2017, he was sentenced in absentia to 30 years in jail in Iran.
Despite all of this, he reportedly became a Canadian citizen and according to reports on social media, Khavari and his son set up a successful restaurant chain in Toronto, even garnering positive coverage in the process, to the disgust of activists like Alinejad:
Before Khavari left Iran for Canada, he reportedly penned a resignation letter, in which he insisted that his bank was not directly involved in the scheme. According to the same news reports, he also apologized to Iran’s supreme leader and the Iranian people, claiming he was resigning “out of respect.”
In another infamous case, a video of a retired Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander working out at a gym in Toronto went viral in January 2022, angering Iranians all over the world.
Morteza Talaei, a former second brigadier general with the IRGC, was also the head of the Tehran police force when Iranian Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was beaten to death in custody in 2003.
Kazemi, who had a permit to film, was arrested after taking photos of Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, where protests were taking place over students detained by the regime.
It wasn’t until 2022, almost 20 years after Kazemi’s death, that the Canadian government took action against Talaei and sanctioned him under the Special Economic Measures Act for gross and systemic human rights violations.
That result came only after the government was called out on social media and by many famous activists, like Masih Alinejad.
Alinejad was outraged that the government of Canada gave someone like Talaei a visa in the first place, referring to Canada as the backyard playground for the Islamic Republic.
For many in the Iranian diaspora, Canada’s permissiveness with wealthy Iranians connected to the regime, people who are sometimes even personally involved in acts of brutality, has become a recognizable and troubling pattern.
“I don’t know how when it comes to all the killers, when it comes to Islamic Republic officials, suddenly Canada abandons Iranian people and opens the doors toward all these barbaric mullahs and barbaric officials,” says Alinejad, clearly frustrated.
Alinejad wants all Canadians to wake up to this reality.
“Maybe you think that this is some problem with Iranians. ‘Let them deal with it.’ It’s not. The Islamic Republic is a threat to Canadians.”
As The New Reality discovered, it’s not just a few isolated cases. This is a major problem, and it’s happening across the country.
The issue is so rampant, Burnaby, B.C., lawyer Ramin Joubin has formed a group working to identify and investigate those with close ties to the regime living in Canada.
And the scope of the problem is shocking.
“We have about 700 names right now that either have temporary residence, permanent residence or citizenship that are in Canada and that are somehow regime affiliates. We are still counting. So it’s going to be closer to 1,000,” Joubin claims.
Joubin says one of the most concerning things he sees is “impunity … to operate in Canada, engaging in financial and violent crimes.”
“They will not be prosecuted. That’s just a fact,” he adds.
Joubin claims many of the regime-connected insiders come with millions of dollars. He alleges they are often involved in financial fraud or large-scale government corruption, and settle in wealthy neighbourhoods in Canada.
His database of regime-connected individuals is divided into categories: embezzlement, money laundering and threats and intimidation. Those are some of the main patterns he’s seen through his investigation.
“Some of them have citizenship. They’ve had citizenship for a long time. And they knew, OK, once I embezzle, I can go to Canada and live a lavish life in West Vancouver or wherever. And some of them had this pre-planned already, and they came to Canada knowing that this is going to be their safe haven,” he says.
“It affects everyone. It’s in our own neighbourhoods. It’s all over Canada.”
B.C. resident Kamran Malekpour has done his own investigation, and his findings echo Joubin’s.
The investigative journalist told The New Reality he has confirmation of at least 300 properties across B.C.’s Lower Mainland belonging to either individuals connected to the Islamic Republic or their family members.
Malekpour was a journalist in Iran who came to Canada in 2012. His attempts to expose the large number of regime affiliates in Canada have become the sole focus of his work. But it’s more than just a job for Malekpour.
His aunt, Nafiseh, was a political dissident who helped raise him and his brother. Through tears, he shares how Nafiseh inspires him today.
“When I am talking about Nafiseh, it’s like a candle who burned and finished,” Malekpour says.
He says Nafiseh was tortured and jailed in Evin Prison. The aunt who emerged was not the same person. Unable to cope with the trauma after her release, Nafiseh took her own life when Malekpour was a teenager. That moment galvanized him into action.
“From that time, it was, ‘OK, I have to do something.’”
For Malekpour, like Alinejad, just reporting facts and seeking justice is a life-threatening pursuit.
In mid-September, Iranian Intelligence Minister Esmail Khatib appeared on a state television program in Iran, where he made a direct threat against Iran International, the media organization where Malekpour works.
“We believe that Iran International is a terrorist network,” Khatib said on state television.
Because of that, Malekpour said, the regime believes it has the right to attack Iran International journalists “anywhere, in any country, any time.”
Even in Canada, Malekpour doesn’t feel safe from the threat of the Islamic Republic.
“I feel every day when I go out from home, I have this feeling that maybe this is the last day.”
Threats from the Iranian regime are not empty, according to Payam Akhavan.
“For the past 20 years, we have been telling the government that this is going to become a very serious problem,” Akhavan says. “Not just within Iran, but it has even spread its tentacles right here in Canada.”
Akhavan is one of the world’s most distinguished human rights lawyers. Through his work at the International Criminal Court, Akhavan has been a witness to some of the most notorious war crimes in modern history.
“I have had the opportunity to work on behalf of survivors of genocide in Bosnia, in Rwanda, and many other places in the world. But of course, my own home back in Iran remains a very special place in my consciousness, and I have a special sense of responsibility,” he says.
Akhavan is a senior advisor to Global Affairs Canada on the investigation into Flight 752.
He finds it outrageous that regime-connected insiders have been able to use Canada as their safe haven for so long.
“It’s really disturbing to see now that those same elites that are responsible for so much evil and so much suffering are enjoying their ill-gotten wealth in Canada with impunity,” Akhavan says.
“And they are establishing networks of influence there, even vilifying and intimidating and threatening those who have escaped the Islamic Republic so that they could have a life of safety and freedom in Canada.”
Akhavan says Canada has to ask itself an important question: “Is it consistent with our leadership on human rights, on the world stage, to go to the United Nations, on the one hand, and condemn Iran’s widespread appalling human rights abuses and then with the other hand to welcome the proponents of that regime by letting them park their money here?”
Akhavan warns that without more action and enforcement, things could get a lot worse.
“We should not be naive enough to believe that the day would not come when they would decide to assassinate people here in Canada if it was in their interest to do so.”
Gabriel Noronha says in the past 44 years the regime has “conducted over 360 terror assassinations” outside of Iran.
The U.S. security expert says the Islamic Republic has proven over and over again that it will kill its critics anywhere in the world, and no one is safe.
“Speaking for the United States, there are active plots around at least a dozen Americans. The United Kingdom has threats against 15 of its citizens. So I have no doubt that Canada, which has a larger diaspora of Iranians than the United States does, I believe, I have no doubt that there are active and significant threats against Canadians today,” Noronha says.
Akhavan is hopeful recent developments show that the government of Canada is finally waking up to this reality. He says there are promising signs, like the expansion of targeted sanctions against certain officials in Iran. Canada has also amended its Magnitsky legislation to allow the government to go after assets of Iranians implicated in human rights abuses and corruption.
“The moment that the government seizes the first assets of these individuals, many of them will pack their bags and go.”
But immigration lawyer Ramin Joubin says it’s been “a lot of words, not enough action.”
There are 77 groups on Canada’s terrorist list, but Iran’s notorious Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is not one of them. The United States, meanwhile, declared the IRGC a terrorist organization in 2019.
The IRGC reports only to the supreme leader. The powerful paramilitary organization has its own armed forces, navy, air force, intelligence and special forces, which are separate from the regular Iranian military.
According to the Central Intelligence Agency, the IRGC funds terror groups around the world. The organization also carried out violent crackdowns on protesters during last year’s “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement — and shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752.
Noronha says listing the IRGC as a terrorist organization will improve Canada’s ability to counter it.
“The IRGC is perhaps the most pernicious terrorist organization on the face of the planet today. They are plotting terror attacks on every continent on Earth.”
The government of Canada has designated some individual IRGC group members as inadmissible. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has referred to it as a terrorist organization.
But that’s not good enough for Joubin.
“It’s a terrorist organization,” he says. “It’s good that people know about that more and more. That’s great. But if it’s a terrorist organization, where’s the action? Why are they not on the terrorist list?”
The prime minister has resisted calls to list the organization as a terror group because some Iranians are forced into the organization as part of their mandatory military service. Joubin says that shouldn’t be an obstacle, saying Canada is able to identify and separate low-level conscripts who served against their will and make exceptions on a case-by-case basis.
Joubin says the terrorist designation is important because it gives the justice system much more ammunition. He says if the IRGC were on the list, members who have obtained Canadian citizenship would be liable for crimes committed overseas and subject to much more severe penalties, like members of other designated terrorist groups.
“If you go and join ISIS and you come back, because ISIS is on (the) terrorist list, there is action,” he adds.
Alinejad made an appearance at Canada’s Parliament in 2019, passionately pleading with the government to take stronger action. Four years later, she said she wishes the federal government had heeded her warnings, not just for the sake of Iranians but for all Canadians.
Her only hope is that the Canadian government will listen to her now.
“You see, killing, hostage-taking, murdering, executing – it’s in the DNA of the Islamic Republic.”
Noronha agrees. He said the threat is worse in Canada than almost anywhere else in the world.
“If we allow complacency to happen, then the smoking gun will be a dead body of an Iranian Canadian. And that is not acceptable,” Noronha says.
Alinejad, who has survived an alleged kidnapping and assassination plot, said she’s more terrified about the lack of accountability of regime-connected officials in Canada.
“This is really scary, I see a terrorist regime can freely send killers on U.S. soil, can get a visa to go to Canada and spy on dissidents. This is scary.”
Noronha is concerned with how Canada is treating this threat.
“The question is do the authorities take that problem seriously in Canada. Unfortunately, the answer appears to be no.”