Ali Movassagh watched on FaceTime as his 79-year-old father took his final breaths in a California hospital. He was on life support after months of battling multiple illnesses and the treatment that kept him alive was causing him pain.
“I was with him on the last day, FaceTime, but I could not give him a hug. That’s something that I will never forget,” said Movassagh, apologizing for his tears.
“I think my parents, my father, had the right to see his oldest son before he died.”
Despite an urgent letter to the U.S. Consulate General from his father’s doctor, Movassagh was not granted a waiver to see his father before he passed away on Jan. 4.
Movassagh, a Vancouver resident born in Iran, was deemed “inadmissible” to the United States in June last year when he tried to visit his parents who are American citizens. A Canadian citizen since 2010, he couldn’t understand why at first, but as time passed, Movassagh learned he wasn’t alone.
Since 2019, scores of Iranian-Canadian men – Canadian citizens with no criminal records – have been deemed inadmissible to the U.S. after lengthy interviews with Customs and Border Protection officials.
Some have lost lucrative jobs in the U.S. and had Nexus cards revoked. Others have faced interrogation in other countries or been denied entry altogether. Wives, children and in one case, a mother and girlfriend, have been blacklisted too, just for being connected to them.
Apart from their country of birth, these men share two things in common: they were conscripts in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; and a decade or more after discharge, they’ve become casualties of a geopolitical conflict that doesn’t involve them.
Haunted by an American policy
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is a feared branch of the Iranian military that defends Iran’s Islamic revolutionary regime. A secretive and praetorian guard, it controls the country’s most destructive military assets, including nuclear and missile programs.
Over many years, Human Rights Watch has linked the IRGC to the arrest, detention, abuse and torture of activists and political prisoners. Meanwhile, its clandestine branch – Qods Force – has propped up extremist groups, including the Taliban, with funding, arms and paramilitary training, writes Public Safety Canada.
The Qods Force played a lead role in shoring up the ruthless and blood-stained Assad regime in Syria, and since 2017, has discerningly been listed as a terrorist entity in Canada.
In April 2019, however – one year after launching his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran – then-U.S. president Donald Trump declared the entire IRGC a “foreign terrorist organization.” The controversial decision marked the first time the U.S. had blacklisted part of a foreign government.
Nearly a year after the terrorist designation took hold, the world watched in horror as Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 was shot down in Tehran. The crash killed all 176 passengers, 138 of whom had ties to Canada and 55 of whom were Canadian citizens.
The tragedy happened five days after the U.S. assassinated IRGC General Qassem Soleimani in an airstrike, and less than one day after Iran retaliated by firing ballistic missiles at two Iraqi military bases housing American troops. An Ontario Superior Court justice later ruled that two Iranian surface-to-air missiles downed the flight in an intentional act of terrorism by the IRGC. Families of the victims were awarded $100 million in punitive damages.
Two years later, the terrorist listing remains in effect south of the border.
‘Sweeping’ implications for Iranians
Thomas Juneau, a former Department of National Defence analyst, doesn’t question the symbolic value or intentions of America’s move against the IRGC, but rather its effectiveness in achieving security aims.
“Is the concern with Iranian intelligence activities in Canada and the U.S. real? Absolutely,” he said in an interview from Ottawa. “The issue again becomes one of, what is the best way given finite resources, to address that threat?”
Trump’s blacklisting of the IRGC holds sweeping implications for Iranians, even those with Canadian citizenship. It effectively bans anyone with a past or present tie to the IRGC from stepping foot on American soil, including conscripts, and in some cases, their families.
Juneau, who studies Iran’s relations with North America, described the policy as “overreach” – a tool so “sweeping” it wastes resources on barring law-abiding Iranian-Canadians who have done nothing wrong.
“Actually enforcing this measure – as opposed to just making it in a symbolic way – is practically impossible because hundreds of thousands of Iranians have served in the IRGC,” the associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public Policy and International Affairs explained.
“Many of them were only cooks, clerks, drivers, mechanics. They were conscripts, so enforcing penalties against them is not only unfair, but in practice undoable.”
Juneau suggested targeting “top individuals,” such as the family members of senior regime officials who invest in major cities, may achieve American security goals more effectively.
The possibility of delisting the IRGC as a terrorist organization has been raised in recent weeks as President Joe Biden seeks to revive a multilateral nuclear deal with Iran. Such a concession, however, remains controversial, with the Qods Force emerging as a major sticking point for the new administration.
No choice but to serve
Global News spoke with 20 former IRGC conscripts and three wives of former conscripts in British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, whom the U.S. deems inadmissible.
All said they suffered personal and professional consequences; some had to move and start new careers in Canada, and others are out thousands of dollars in legal fees that failed to remedy their inadmissibility.
The men said they left after completing the mandatory minimum service time of between 18 and 24 months, and insisted they had nothing to do with any task that resembles terrorist activity.
“I was not part of any active military service. All I did, two weeks a month, was see patients, other conscripts in IRGC,” said Dr. Ardalan Ahmad, a Toronto urologist who completed his conscription more than 15 years ago.
“I was not even allowed to interact with the official personnel of IRGC.”
Men in Iran face harsh penalties for failure to complete their conscription; according to the federal government’s aggregation of data on Iran, deserters face ineligibility to obtain a passport, a driver’s licence and many government or high-paying jobs. Former conscripts interviewed by Global News added arrest, imprisonment and never being able to marry or obtain a university degree to the list of probable consequences.
“I did not have a choice, believe me, I would have chosen to go to another military branch,” said Ahmad in an interview near his home in North York, Ont.
The physician said he moved to Canada within a month of completing his conscription in 2005. He lived in New York and California for nearly eight years conducting medical research and training, and obtained Canadian citizenship in 2019.
He said he was gobsmacked when he was stopped by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on Jan. 15, 2020, at Pearson International Airport. About to begin a full-time teaching position at the University of Florida, he said he presented the necessary paperwork, but was told he could go no further after revealing his brief time served in the IRGC.
“It’s upsetting because I’m an ordinary person,” said Ahmad. “One of my goals was to be in academia and try to be in a teaching position … Unfortunately, I lost that position.”
His story resonates with Moe Toghraei, who was living in Wisconsin for work when he was deemed inadmissible. He went home to Calgary in September 2020 to visit his wife and daughter, but when he checked in for his return flight, was stopped by the CBP.
Toghraei, an engineer, told the agents that between 1990 and 1991, he was forced to translate articles about water and wastewater for the IRGC. In response, he said the CBP revoked his TN visa to work in the U.S. and told him if he ever wanted to go back, he’d need a lawyer.
“After a few months I got another job, but I was still suffering from that mental thing that happened to me,” Toghraei told Global News. “After three months, my wife – or actually it’s better to say my ex-wife – asked for a divorce because I ‘brought stress into the house.’”
‘Everything was shattered’
Around the world, travellers dread a stamp of ‘SSSS’ on their boarding passes. The American code, also known as a ‘quad,’ stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection.
Shora Hosseinzadehdehkordi saw it for the first time after he was deemed inadmissible to the U.S. – banned at the Calgary International Airport on July 30, 2021, while trying to take his family to Universal Studios.
“The kids were really excited to go there but no, it was a big blow to their holiday,” the Calgary resident told Global News. “Everything was shattered after that.”
Hosseinzadehdehkordi, an electrical engineer, told the CBP he repaired electrical equipment over 20 months of compulsory IRGC service between 2006 and 2007. The agents then revoked his family’s Nexus cards and blacklisted him, leaving him with an $8,000 bill for the untaken trip.
Five months later, ‘SSSS’ appeared on his boarding pass ahead of a Christmas Eve trip to Mexico. Hosseinzadehdehkordi said he underwent extended screening in Calgary but was allowed to fly, and thought his problems were over.
When a border agent scanned his passport in Cancun, however, he said he was directed to an immigration office, interviewed for two hours, and told he was inadmissible to Mexico too.
“I got cold. I felt I’m frozen now, I couldn’t even talk,” Hosseinzadehdehkordi recalled. “I just asked why and they couldn’t even answer me … They didn’t even let me see my family.”
Hosseinzadehdehkordi was escorted by two members of Mexico’s National Guard onto the next flight to Canada – a flight to Vancouver, not Calgary. His family reluctantly stayed in Cancun.
“The kids were crying … I was alone with two kids in Mexico. It was so stressful,” said Shora Forootan, Hosseinzadehdehkordi’s wife. “My younger son, he is five, he just kept asking me, ‘Did they hurt Daddy? Did they injure him? Did they arrest him?’”
Even those who have taken steps to clear their names after being banned from the U.S. have been beset by problems while travelling.
After being deemed inadmissible on Dec. 18, 2019, Montreal businessman Javad Mokhtarzadeh appealed to the Department of Homeland Security’s Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, and in April 2020, he received a letter assuring him corrections had been made to his file. He was issued a Redress Control Number, allowing the U.S. Transportation Security Administration to quickly access the results of his case.
He also followed the advice of Public Safety Canada and obtained Canadian Travel Numbers for his family – a similar measure used in Canada’s screening process to help “ensure travellers are not accidentally flagged and face delays at the airport.”
Nevertheless, Mokhtarzadeh said the Canada Border Services Agency interviewed him both before leaving Montreal for Frankfurt on Dec. 17, 2021, and upon his return on Jan. 21. With quads on his and his wife’s boarding passes, he said their belongings were searched, a CBSA officer made insulting insinuations, and he was asked to produce an Iranian passport after having produced a Canadian one.
“They don’t believe we are Canadian enough. They don’t fully accept us,” he told Global News. “If there is a problem with us, why has the Canadian government granted citizenship to us?”
Repetition, inaction from Ottawa
There are hundreds of thousands of Iranians in Canada, thousands of whom likely completed conscription in the IRGC. Travel has been limited during the COVID-19 pandemic, but as it resumes, more and more cases of inadmissibility are likely to arise.
Despite the potential scale of the problem and its widespread ramifications, the federal government doesn’t seem to be willing to raise the issue with U.S. officials.
“Canada respects the right of the United States to determine the admissibility and the screening procedures for the entry of foreign nationals,” wrote Aidan Strickland, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, in an email to Global News.
“Canada has no role in this process, however the Government of Canada is committed to ensuring the validity and respect of Canadian passport holders.”
Repeated requests for interviews with Fraser, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly went unanswered or were declined over a span of more than a month. A detailed list of questions sent to Mendicino was met with a two-sentence response:
“Canada respects the rights of other countries to determine procedures for foreign nationals entering their territories, and has no role in those processes,” wrote spokesperson Craig MacBride.
Widespread, unknown implications
In an emailed statement, the CBSA confirmed it’s aware “there have been instances” of Iranian-Canadians being denied entry to the U.S., but has no internal mechanism for tracking how many.
Asked whether being deemed inadmissible to the U.S. is an automatic trigger for secondary screening in Canada, the agency said all Canadian citizens may be subject to an in-depth exam upon reentry, and it should not be viewed as “an accusation of wrong-doing.”
Movassagh, the Vancouver businessman, said he’s been forced to rethink international travel not only for himself, but his children. It’s an unfair punishment, he told Global News, for someone who “didn’t do anything wrong.” Between 1995 and 1997, he said his assignment was to keep an inventory of the IRGC’s construction and transport trucks.
In January, still grieving the loss of his father, Movassagh asked his 21-year-old daughter to fly from Vancouver to California to care for his widowed mother. His daughter, who “didn’t even know what IRGC was,” was deemed inadmissible at the airport on Jan. 7.
The option to attend university in America has now been taken from her, said Movassagh, who is unsure whether his son should attempt a trip to the U.S., lest the same thing happen to him.
“The future is very unknown. We’re lost, we don’t know what to do,” he told Global News from his Burnaby, B.C., business office. “That’s why I’m reaching out to the Canadian government at the high levels to negotiate with the U.S. government.”
‘Matters of national security’
Diplomacy may be the only hope for former conscripts and their families. According to American immigration lawyers, Iranian-Canadians seeking a reversal of their inadmissibility would face a steep uphill battle.
Most people interviewed for this story were deemed inadmissible under Section 212(a)(7)(A)(I)(I) of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, which bars any immigrant who is not in possession of the correct documentation, such as a valid visa, from entering the country.
Some said they were directed by the CBP to obtain a visa from a U.S. consulate in Canada, but when they tried to do so, consulate officials told them they didn’t need visas because they were Canadian citizens.
“Basically, they’re given the runaround by not only Customs and Border Protection at the U.S. border, but by consular offices at these U.S. consulates and embassies, and I have to be the bearer of bad news,” said Len Saunders, an immigration lawyer in Blaine, Wash.
“I tell them why they’ve been denied entry, because the Americans like to hide the ball and not tell them … and that there’s really not a lot that I or they can do to enter the U.S. in the foreseeable future.”
Scott Railton, an immigration lawyer at Cascadia Cross-Border law in Bellingham, Wash., said everyone who seeks entry to the U.S. is considered an immigrant until they’ve met the burden of proof showing they aren’t.
“At the border, when it comes to admissions, the Supreme Court has recognized that due process rights are at their lowest and security interests are at their highest,” he explained.
The Department of Homeland Security and the CBP would not answer questions about the inadmissibility of former IRGC conscripts “due to matters of national security.” They declined, in particular, to explain why those Canadians would be instructed to apply for a visa they could not obtain, rather than a waiver to their inadmissibility.
“CBP inspects each person individually and makes an admissibility determination guided by the grounds of inadmissibility within the Immigration and Nationality Act,” wrote public affairs specialist Rhonda Lawson in an email.
While top Canadian officials have maintained Canada has “no role” in America’s admissibility decisions at the border, the Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group argues there’s still something the federal government can do for its inadmissible citizens.
“Canada has a close relationship with the United States. I don’t think it would take a lot of political capital to raise this as part of other discussions and to make sure that there’s an understanding that this has an impact,” said national coordinator Tim McSorley.
“There’s also something else in terms of the Canadian government’s response, and that’s to assure Iranian-Canadians that they won’t be facing future repercussions in Canada.”
Many emails sent to members of Parliament, the prime minister’s office, Global Affairs Canada, and the foreign affairs minister have not produced answers or solutions for inadmissible Iranian-Canadians who shared their correspondence with Global News.
Five years ago, Ottawa scrambled to ensure its citizens would not be impacted by Trump’s travel ban on people from predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran. Some said they hoped their government would be as proactive after the 2019 IRGC terrorist listing.
The office of Kristen Hillman, Canadian ambassador to the U.S., declined an interview for this story. Juneau, meanwhile, said Canada has “extremely limited means” to influence the U.S. because of its size, and must be “strategic” with the issues it champions.
“Is this an issue that the government will decide is worth spending political and diplomatic capital to try and negotiate something with the Americans? Maybe, but I would suspect that it wouldn’t be, realistically, at the top of their list as much as I do agree it’s a big problem.”
As officials mull delisting the IRGC to appease Tehran, U.S. General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said he believes the Qods Force, at least, must remain a designated foreign terrorist organization. Biden reportedly shares the view that the Qods Force are terrorists, but the State Department has so far guarded the president’s leanings on removing the IRGC as a whole.
In Vancouver, meanwhile, Movassagh said he will rely on FaceTime to communicate with his widowed mother – his family “locked up” in Canada until Biden and the U.S. Congress approves a change, or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instigates a conversation.