Economic sanctions against Iran affect students in Canada

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Mohammed Shahsavari doesn't know how he is going to pay his tuition.

The second-year master's student at Carleton University is one of hundreds of Iranian students in Canada affected by deepening economic sanctions against Iran.

At the end of January, Canada followed the United States and the European Union in tightening its sanctions. This included prohibiting all financial transactions with Iran. Although Iranians in Canada can send less than $40,000 home, it's difficult to transfer funds from Iran to Canada.

Shahsavari says that students who depend on money from their parents have no way to access it.

"We can't get loans from the government, we can't get money from the banks. We are just dependent on the money we've got from our savings," he said. "We're in a very tight situation right now."

He says the only way to transfer the money would be to arrange for someone in Iran to pick it up and physically bring it to Canada -- a costly and time-consuming process.

The sanctions were put in place after an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) assessment of Iran's nuclear program in 2011 concluded that Iran had been involved in nuclear weapons development activities. Though Iran maintains its nuclear efforts are peaceful, Western governments have cast doubt on these claims as nuclear warhead research was reported in the assessment.

The sanctions include freezing all assets held in Canadian financial institutions by the Iranian Central Bank as well as prohibiting Canadian institutions from interacting with Iranian banks.

These measures have had an unintended effect on Iranian immigrants, retirees and students in Canada. Many international students don't have the proper visas to work. When they do apply for jobs, Shahsavari says it's difficult to convince employers to recognize foreign credentials.

"Employers prefer to hire Canadian degrees. We can't find a job. Unless we go to work in sales or at Tim Horton's or Subway," he said.

Even if he could receive money, Shahsavari says it would no longer be enough, due to the falling value of Iran's currency.

In late January, the EU committed to an embargo on Iranian oil. One month later, pressure from the United States forced major banks in Dubai, a channel for international currency in Iran, to stop all dealings with Iranian institutions. This has essentially cut off Iran's access to the international banking system.

It's a blow that struck the already struggling Iranian economy harder than expected. The Iranian currency, the rial, is now worth half as much in Canadian dollars as it was in September, and inflation has increased 21 per cent.

It's up to individuals to figure out whether or not their transaction is legal under the sanctions. According to Shahsavari, however, many banks are refusing to transfer funds even if the transactions shouldn't be affected by the sanctions. Iranians can file a complaint, or apply for a permit from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), but the process is extremely complicated and could end up costing more. DFAIT recommends that Iranians seek legal advice if they are unsure of the process.

With few other options, affected students have approached their unions.

At Carleton, the Graduate Students' Association (GSA) says it has made emergency funds available for Iranian students facing financial crisis. GSA President Elizabeth Whyte says the Carleton administration trying to claw back the wages of teaching assistants after a payroll error two years ago isn't helping.

"The clawbacks are actually hurting international students the most," she said. "They're the most precarious financially on this campus. Their tuition fees are three times what ours are."

With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu's recent meetings with Western leaders and increasing speculation that Israel is planning an attack on Iran, there's no sign of the sanctions being lifted. Last week, President Barack Obama even reiterated the need for sanctions and "diplomacy" to avoid conflict in Iran.

Shahavari says he hopes that the international dispute can be settled, but for now, he advises students to take action.

"The sanctions come from the conflicts between the governments," he said. "We should try to fix the government problems so there will be no sanctions and people can be free."

Steffanie Pinch rocks rabble's Activist Toolkit internship. A journalism major in her fourth year with a minor in gender studies, she has been covering and participating in protests throughout her time at Carleton University. She can be found hanging around Ottawa, drinking fair trade coffee and making socially conscious documentaries.

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