May 19, 2017 5:54 pm
Updated: May 20, 2017 4:19 pm

Iranian-Canadians drive to U.S. for only option to vote in Iran election

Hundreds of Iranian expats wait for hours to vote in Bellevue, Washington for Iran's presidential election.

Hundreds of Iranian expats wait for hours to vote in Bellevue, Washington for Iran's presidential election.


Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani defeated hardline challenger Ebrahim Raisi, securing a decisive re-election for a second term.

Voting started Friday in Iran’s first presidential election since it reached a nuclear deal with world powers in Vienna on July 14, 2015. Lineups to vote in Iran were so long, the polls stayed open four hours later than planned.

Thousands of Iranian expats across the globe also waited in long lineups to cast their ballot, but one place they couldn’t vote from — Canada.

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Instead, dozens of Canadian-Iranians drove hundreds of kilometres to extraterritorial polling booths in the United States to have their say in a showdown between gradual reform or a conservative return.

Iranians had a choice between Rouhani, a 68-year-old cleric who has pushed for greater freedom at home and outreach to the wider world and Raisi, a more conservative religious cleric.  

READ MORE: Rouhani begins tough mission of selling US dialogue to hardliners

The outcome not only impacts Iran, but also affects stability in the region and relations with the rest of the world, according to Bessma Momani, a professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Waterloo. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation (CIGI), and has been Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.

Momani says “there is more potential for conflicts” between the U.S. and Iran had Raisi become the next president.

“It’s a recipe for potential conflict. A Raisi-Trump relationship will probably be far more on the verge of irrationality.”

“Clearly he’s [Raisi] a conservative cleric far more than Rouhani. Rouhani is more likely to be open to continued global engagement and so it matters to the people of Iran. It matters because they are fed up with this theocracy, they do want to become more engaged in the world. And don’t want to see the theocratic conservative policy that the Ayatollah and people like Raisi continue to call for,” she added.

It’s one reason why this election was so critical to Iranian expats.

READ MORE: ‘I feel sub-human’: The faces of Donald Trump’s travel ban

Vancouver resident, Maziar Seirafi along with at least nine of his friends waited hours crossing the Peace Arch border to vote in Bellevue, Washington.

Seirafi, who was born in Iran, says he wasn’t even sure if he would make it past the border given the political climate in the U.S. and a failed attempt by Trump to implement the so-called Trump travel ban, which impacted Iranian citizens. He said it was one of the quickest border crossings he’s ever had with the border guard commenting on how many Canadian-Iranians having been entering Washington state to vote.

Hundreds vote in Bellevue, Washington for Iran election.

“As soon as the border guard sees us he asked us if we’re going to vote.”

Seirafi, who waited in line to vote with at least 300 people for over an hour in Bellevue, says this year’s election is crucial.

“The difference between the main candidates is stark and obvious. I believe in homegrown gradual reform movement in Iran, by the people of Iran for the people of Iran. Participating in these elections is one step towards achieving that goal.”

READ MORE: Canadians who are dual citizens of countries affected by Trump immigration order can go to US 

Rouhani is still known as a reformist despite being part of a regime where moral and social codes of the Islamic Republic remain essentially as they were from the 1979 revolution. Seirafi feels like that candidate is still his only hope.

“I know full well that he cannot deliver my ideal political system. But I’m certain that voting for him is tantamount to taking a consequential step, in the right direction, in this long journey.”

The 1979 revolution, and an eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, Seirafi says, has made him averse to radical, sudden change.

Despite a commitment by the Trudeau government to open up relations with Tehran, the Liberal government has not facilitated a way for tens of thousands of Iranian expats to participate in the election. Former prime minister Stephen Harper severed all relations between Canada and Iran in 2012.

READ MORE: Canada to lift sanctions on Iran

“I think it’s a shame,” Momani said. “It’s understandable that Canada chose not to allow polling booth stations under the circumstances of not having an embassy here and not having ties.”

Momani credits the U.S. for their decision to set up 55 polling stations.

“Smart for them to realize any Iranians in the diaspora that have access to vote in what is a very tight election, in my opinion, with a chance of great amounts of fraud from the conservatives, who don’t want to see Rouhani win — they are effectively helping Rouhani come to power.”

But Momani notes there are many people in the Iranian diaspora who refuse to vote, believing the elections are a sham to begin with, not wanting to perpetuate the current regime.

Soudeh Ghasemi with the Iranian Canadian Congress, a non-profit organization based in Ontario, was not able to take time off work to drive down to the U.S. to vote.

“We at the Iranian Canadian Congress hope that the Government of Canada considers all the problems that Iranian Canadians encounter because of this lack of diplomatic relations and follows through with its promise to reestablish relations and facilitate reopening of the embassies very soon,” she says.

Forty-million ballots were cast in Iran alone in a race that drew more than seven out of every 10 voters to the polls. Iranian expats who voted also had an impact on an election that not only influences Iran’s immediate future but also shapes the country’s place in global diplomacy.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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