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Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard is a terrorist group, says Canada

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Canada will list Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of the Iranian Armed Forces, as a terrorist group.

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc made the announcement Wednesday afternoon, vowing Canada will "use all of the tools at its disposal" to combat the IRGC's activity in Canada. Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly advised Canadians in Iran to return home, warning of retaliatory measures.   

It is a crime to knowingly deal with the assets of a listed terrorist entity under Canada's Criminal Code. Charitable organizations can lose their status if they maintain their connections to terrorist groups, and people found to be associated with those groups can be denied entry into Canada. It also allows banks to freeze assets.

LeBlanc said the IRGC has demonstrated "disregard for human rights both inside and outside of Iran."

In January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said publicly he was open to the move, so long as it was done "responsibly." He made the remarks during a vigil for victims of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which was shot down by the IRGC over Tehran on Jan. 8, 2020.

Of the 176 people killed when the plane was shot down, 55 were Canadian citizens and 30 were permanent residents.

The IRGC said the plane was mistaken for a hostile target. At the time, international tensions were at a fever pitch after the U.S. carried out a drone strike against Iranian military officer Qasem Soleimani, killing him just days before.

In May, members of Parliament voted unanimously in favour of a non-binding motion calling on the government to list the group as a terrorist entity, which victims' family members have demanded Canada do for years.

"This demand has been out there for a long time," said Hamed Esmaeilion, leader of the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims. "We want to see any financial ties of the IRGC (to be) charged as criminal activity."

In this Feb. 3, 2019 file photo, an Iranian clergyman looks at domestically built surface to surface missiles displayed by the Revolutionary Guard in a military show marking the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, at Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran, Iran. (Vahid Salemi / The Associated Press)

In 2022, Esmaeilion said in testimony to the House justice committee that Canada had become a “safe haven for the criminals of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

That year, Canada designated the Islamic Republic of Iran a regime that has engaged in terrorism and systematic or gross human rights violations.

As a result, top Iranian officials were banned from Canada and domestic authorities were allowed to investigate those already in the country. Those measures came shortly after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who made international headlines after she died in police custody in Iran. She had been arrested for allegedly wearing a head covering incorrectly.

More recently, Canada sanctioned Iran’s defence minister after the IRGC lobbed a barrage of missiles and drones towards Israel in April. That attack came after an airstrike destroyed Iran’s embassy in Syria, which local officials and state media attributed to Israel.

"The regime in Iran is brutal, repressive, theocratic and misogynist. Our government has taken strong action to counter that regime," Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters earlier on Wednesday.

The IRGC will join al Qaeda, Hamas, Boko Haram, the Islamic State and 72 other international groups on Canada's terrorist list, which is reassessed every five years. The Quds Force, a branch of the IRGC, was already on the list.

The United States designated the IRGC a terrorist entity in 2019 under the Trump administration – a title President Joe Biden has maintained.

Joly told reporters she consulted with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken ahead of Wednesday’s announcement. 

Liberals too slow to act, say opponents

In a press release, the Conservatives criticized the Trudeau administration, stating that it took too long to act.

As a result, "the IRGC has been able to grow stronger," read the release.

"They have been allowed to fundraise, recruit and operate in Canada while terrorizing countless Iranian-Canadians who fled to Canada to escape the IRGC in the first place."

Liberal MP Ali Ehsassi is among politicians from both sides of the aisle who have long called for the designation.

Despite having urged his government to designate the IRGC a terrorist group as far back as October 2022, Ehsassi defended the government for taking years to do so in an interview on CTV News Channel's Power Play with Vassy Kapelos on Wednesday.

"This is a very deliberative process. I think it was incumbent on the government to, first of all, hear from scholars, experts and various lawyers. There were a lot of people who were consulted in this process," he said.

"Given the fact that no one wants our government to act in a rash fashion, I think we essentially crossed our T's and dotted our I's and made sure that we were acting in a responsible fashion."

Recognizing that many Canadians have a vested interest in seeing the government act against the IRGC following the downing of Flight 752, Ehsassi said it was still important for the federal government to follow due process, even if it took years to make the change.

"It really was a collective effort to make sure that we actually look into this, look at all the evidence and take this necessary step," he said. "To suggest that over the course of the past couple of years that the government hasn't taken steps, I think, would be far from the truth. There have been 18 rounds of sanctions that have been adopted by our government."

Facing questions on how the designation might affect Iranian diaspora communities in Canada, some of whom may have been coerced into participating in IRGC activity, Attorney General Arif Virani says he trusts investigators to be fair.

"We have been very careful and measured in terms of our approach," he said.

Being charged in connection with a terrorist group "requires a level of intention that is elevated … People would need to be sending money knowing where it is going," he added.

In this Feb. 11, 2019 file photo, Iranian Revolutionary Guard members attend a ceremony celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, at the Azadi, or Freedom, Square in Tehran, Iran. (Vahid Salemi / The Associated Press)

In other words, if someone aids the IRGC without realizing it, if they were coerced to do so, or if they were once conscripted by the group but have since left it, "That would inform the analysis," Virani said. "I have a lot of confidence in our law enforcement."

Canadians in Iran: 'Come back home'

Meanwhile, Canada’s move could result in greater risk for citizens living and travelling in Iran, prompting a call from Joly for Canadians there to return.

“There is a greater risk of arbitrary detention,” she said. "My message is clear: for those who are in Iran right now, it's time to come back home. And for those who are planning to go to Iran, don't go."

Joly says Canada cut diplomatic ties with Iran years ago and cannot provide local consular assistance.

The federal government updated its travel advisory for Iran on Wednesday afternoon and, in a post on X, warned Canadians there to keep a low profile, avoid sharing personal information and avoid taking photos, travelling to remote areas or interacting with locals.

"Due to recent developments, authorities could take retaliatory measures that could post a risk to your safety and security," the post states, echoing Joly's warnings.

The Israeli government praised the move in a media release issued by the Embassy of Israel in Canada, saying it sends a clear message to Iran that its terror activities in the Middle East and around the world "will not be tolerated."

"We appreciate the decision of the Government of Canada and at the same time recognize the importance of the broad and long standing cross-party parliamentary support in this regard," said Israel's Ambassador to Canada, Iddo Moed.  

The federal NDP also applauded the move, despite lamenting the Liberals for having “dragged their feet.”

“Today’s news should finally bring some relief to Iranian-Canadians who have been targeted by the regime,” foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson said in a news release.

With files from CTV News' Vassy Kapelos and CTVNews.ca journalist Megan DeLaire

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