Four years ago, an Iranian accountant named Keihan Pouresmaeili applied to immigrate to Manitoba. He appreciated Canada's multiculturalism, had visited Winnipeg and wanted to see his children educated there.
Manitoba accepted his application in 2013 under a program for immigrant investors, giving him high hopes he'd be moving soon.
More than a year later, however, Mr. Pouresmaeili is still in Tehran, his application stalled for the past 14 months, waiting for the green light from the Department of Foreign Affairs to allow him to transfer his money to Canada. Mr. Pouresmaeili, like dozens of other would-be immigrant investors from Iran, says that he is a victim of Ottawa's economic sanctions against Iran, which curtail financial dealings between the two countries. While Ottawa has indicated the sanctions aren't meant to punish individual Iranians, advocates for the Iranian community describe the delays faced by immigrants as an overzealous interpretation of the economic sanctions.
The delay is particularly unnerving because Mr. Pouresmaeili's 17-year-old son, Hesan, is approaching the age where he would be conscripted into the Iranian military, which would derail the family's plans to resettle together in Canada.
"He's very depressed about this," Mr. Pouresmaeili said about his son.
Under programs in Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia, would-be immigrants are required to make minimum investments ranging from $200,000 to $800,000 once they have been accepted. However, they need a permit from the office of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to exempt them from the ban on transferring money from Iran to Canada.
In December, a group of 54 applicants to Quebec sent a letter for Mr. Baird, warning that they would pursue legal action if they didn't get permits by Jan. 4.
"It is … hard to understand why no decision has been reached regarding these 54 demands, which represent a substantial investment in the Canadian economy," the legal notice said.
The letter alleges the delays are an abuse of power that Canadian courts have not allowed in the past.
Tehran and Ottawa have been at odds for years, but the current Canadian government has been more hawkish than its allies as it responds to the spectre of Iranian nuclear proliferation.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced sanctions in 2010, saying they "are in no way intended to punish the Iranian people."
Further sanctions were announced in 2011 and 2012, and diplomatic relations were suspended.
Montreal lawyer Vincent Valaï, who represents a number of Iranian-Canadian clients, recalled some having their bank accounts in Canada closed because financial institutions misinterpreted the sanctions.
Another client of Mr. Valaï, the Montreal filmmaker Sadaf Foroughi, had to deal with Canadian customs officers who seized an art installation shipped to her from Iran this summer.
Ms. Foroughi eventually got a permit from Foreign Affairs to release her work, a traditional Iranian peep box that was a federally subsidized art project. However, she said the box is still held by customs because she has been charged several thousand dollars in storage fees incurred because of the bureaucratic delays.
"It's as if these incidents are necessary collateral damages," Mr. Valaï said. "I don't question the right of governments to decide economic sanctions against a country. What I've been questioning for years is the government's categorical refusal to revise or clarify those sanctions to prevent violations of economic, social or cultural rights."
The delays in issuing permits to Iranian applicants to provincial immigrant-investor programs have withheld tens of millions of dollars in potential investment, according to Eiman Sadegh, a Montreal business immigration lawyer who knows of more than 100 cases in Quebec and more than 50 applicants to Manitoba and British Columbia.
Depending on when the application was filed, the Quebec program would have required either $400,000 or $800,000 in minimum investment. The British Columbia Provincial Nominee Program requires applications to invest between $200,000 to $500,000. Manitoba requires either a minimum of $200,000 or $400,000.
Mr. Pouresmaeili, a chartered professional accountant, had planned on starting an auditing firm in Winnipeg. Now he frets about his youngest son being drafted. Furthermore, his finances are hobbled because he had liquidated his investments and set aside money that was supposed to be deposited in Manitoba.
Another applicant, Jamshid Farzanehpour, a 62-year-old mine manager in Tehran, said his hopes to move to Quebec "have gone off in the air because of the delays."
Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Farzanehpour said his family was confused and mortified by the logjam.
"Everyone is asking why are you still here? You haven't gone yet?" he said.
Foreign Affairs declined to answer questions about the delays in handling the requests by Iranian applicants.