Talks with Iran to revive the nuclear deal appear to be progressing, but in recent weeks, the United States’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, as a terror group has emerged as a major obstacle. The listing isn’t just about nuclear diplomacy: Countless Iranians who served in the IRGC are now labeled as terrorists — including hundreds of thousands who were conscripted without a choice. This week on Intercepted, senior news editor Ali Gharib and reporter Murtaza Hussain examine the effects the terrorist designation has had on former conscripts who have lived for decades in the West. These dual nationals have been banned from the U.S., lost jobs, and separated from family as a result of the policy.
[Intercepted theme music.]
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
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Ali Gharib: I’m Ali Gharib, a senior editor with The Intercept.
Up until recently, the prospects for reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal seemed dead in the water. But now there’s talk that negotiators might be close to striking a new deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
This week, though, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki suggested there might yet be obstacles to an agreement:
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki: The president will re-enter the deal if it’s in our national security interests, and both ourselves and our allies are prepared to conclude a strong agreement if Iran is prepared to do the same. What we’ve seen, however, is that Iran has raised a number of issues that have nothing to do with the mutual compliance under the nuclear deal, and that is where our focus and our objective is. So we would encourage Iran to focus on the deal negotiated in Vienna, rather than seeking to open issues outside the Vienna context, or casting blame, of course, on others for a pause in the talks.
AG: She was making an apparent reference to what has become one of the major sticking points in the talks: the U.S.’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, as a terrorist organization.
After withdrawing from the Obama-era nuke deal, the Trump administration kept ramping up its attacks on Iran. One of Trump’s later moves was the terror designation for the IRGC, which is known inside Iran as the Sepâh. The IRGC is an elite branch of Iran’s military, and it’s highly unusual for the U.S. to officially label a foreign government’s military forces as terrorists. It paints with a broad brush, like if Iran were to label the entire U.S. Army as a terror group.
The Iranian government initially said there would be no new nuclear deal unless the IRGC designation was removed. But the U.S. — so far — has refused. Last month, an Iranian government official floated the idea that Iran could live with the terror listing — before another official made clear accepting the terrorist label was a non-starter.
Amir Abdolhian: [Speaking Farsi.]
AG: The designation, though, isn’t all about high-level nuclear diplomacy. Real people are affected. All men in Iran are required to do a few years of military service — something many countries do, including Israel and Denmark. Since, in Iran, some of these men are drafted into the IRGC, the terrorist designation has upended the lives of former conscripts living in the West.
Intercept reporter Murtaza Hussain has been looking into how the U.S. government’s designation of the IRGC as a terrorist group has affected the lives of these Iranian dual nationals.
He spoke with more than two-dozen people affected by the policy.
One man he spoke with was Moe Toghraei, a short, soft-spoken 53-year-old Canadian, who worked in the U.S. in water and waste management issues.
Murtaza Hussain: Moe Toghraei expected it to be a routine trip. He filed into the Calgary International Airport on his way back to Wisconsin for work. Last October, he had returned to Canada for a few weeks to visit his wife and children.
Moe Toghraei: I went to the airport. Uh, I didn’t think about anything except my work. I said: OK, when I get there, to Madison, I have to do this or that. I have to contact my boss [and tell him] that I am here again so I start working. I was thinking about these things.
MH: Travelers to the U.S. from the Calgary airport typically go through a U.S. Customs and Border Protection screening before boarding. Toghraei had gone through this process many times before without incident.
But guards took him to a secondary screening room. He didn’t think anything of it.
Agents called Toghraei over; asked him a few basic questions. Then, the agent got to the point:
MT: They said: Come here and explain – where did you go for military service?
MH: Toghraei’s chest immediately tightened. He felt that something was seriously wrong:
MT: And they started to say: Give us your laptop.
And I said: OK, here you are — my laptop.
[They said]: Give us your cell phone.
They felt that they arrested – I don’t know – Osama bin Laden. And they were thinking: OK, what is that? What is that?
And I said: Everything is open. Go see. I don’t have anything to hide.
In Iran, where Toghraei is originally from, young men are required to do two years of military service. Toghraei was no exception. In his early twenties, he was conscripted to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — or, the IRGC.
Over 20 years ago, Toghraei worked a desk job for the IRGC translating documents related to water and waste management. Now, he was being interrogated by the U.S. government about this decades-ago assignment:
MT: So I was translating these things for them, for military camps. So, it was 30 years ago. I was 22 years old and I was translating these things for them.
MH: In 2019, the Trump administration designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization. It is rare for the U.S. to apply this designation to an entire branch of a foreign military.
That designation was why Toghraei found himself being interrogated.
A rotating group of customs agents pressed for more details about his IRGC service: What type of uniform he wore, who he worked with, and what type of training he received. Toghraei said he answered questions honestly: He translated documents and didn’t wear a uniform.
MT: And now I remember one of the officers said: Did you go to a training for using a weapon?
And I said: Yes, two weeks. And definitely my knowledge about weapon[s] is about … high school students in the U.S., possibly they know better than me.
MH: He’d only done basic rifle training in the first few days of his service.
The agents became frustrated with his answers. After a while, Toghraei said, their demeanor turned hostile.
MT: I said: I’m tired, I’m tired. I want to go home. And, at that time, I started to say: “I’m not going to answer this. They were angry. They were watching me angrily. And I said: I don’t want to answer.
MH: He missed his flight. Eventually an agent gave Toghraei a short message: He was inadmissible to the U.S. His temporary work visa was also canceled.
Toghraei’s short trip to Canada to see family led to him being banned from the U.S. He did not know how to explain to his boss in Wisconsin why he could not return to work. He didn’t know what he would do about his apartment, car, or his belongings.
Toghraei had never had legal troubles in his life. But now, in his 50s, he was being told he was too dangerous to enter the U.S.
Toghraei walked out of the airport and sat down to call his wife. As he opened his phone, he began to cry.
But he had no idea this was only the first chapter in the unraveling of his life.
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MH: Toghraei is not alone. Iranian dual-nationals of Western countries who, in some cases were conscripted into the IRGC decades ago and who hold no links to it any longer, have been detained, interrogated, or denied entry from the U.S., Mexico, and the United Kingdom.
I’ve spoken with over two-dozen people about how their lives have been upended by this policy.
Two years ago, the Trump Administration designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization:
Al Jazeera: Hello. U.S. President Donald Trump has designated Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a foreign terrorist organization. This is the first time Washington has formally labeled an arm of another country’s military as a terrorist group.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: Today, the United States is continuing to build its maximum pressure campaign against the Iranian regime. I am announcing our intent to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including its Quds Force as a foreign terrorist organization, in accordance with section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
MH: Years before that, many, like Toghraei, disclosed their IRGC service when immigrating to the West. But they now find themselves under suspicion. Many of them believe they have been placed on a U.S. terrorism watchlist.
MT: They put us on a list. Now I have a problem, apparently, in every country, if I want to go by airplane.
MH: Due to its secretive nature, it is not possible to know whether foreign citizens are on the U.S. government’s terrorism watchlist. But several experts I spoke with said their experiences are consistent with being watchlisted. And past reporting from The Intercept also suggests there are over 1.2 million people on U.S. government watchlists.
Tim McSorely: We were approached by a group of Iranian-Canadian men who came to us with really shocking stories of their experience at the border and while traveling and also in terms of impacts on access to jobs and work permits.
MH: That’s Tim McSorley, the national coordinator for the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, a civil-rights organization based in Canada.
TM: I don’t think anyone can fully grasp the implications of being told that you’re believed to be a member of a terrorist organization when you’ve never engaged in any act of violence in your life, let alone be charged with anything.
It’s always shocking to hear these stories. Unfortunately it’s not new. Over the last 20 years in the history of the war on terror and antiterrorism legislation, we’ve heard these stories a lot from men of either Muslim or Arab background.
McSorley told me about how intelligence — especially with watchlists — is shared between countries:
TM: In terms of watch lists, because they are so secretive, it’s hard to know exactly which lists are being shared with whom, but what we do know is that these lists are shared between countries, particularly between Five Eyes countries, so Canada, United States, Australia, the U.K., and New Zealand.
But also that the U.S. and Canada have a very particular and very unique information sharing relationship where a lot of border information and watchlist information is shared between the two countries, and so there’s no doubt that if these individuals are being blocked from traveling to the United States, especially on allegations of being linked to a terrorist organization, that that’s also being relayed back to Canadian officials.
In the Canadian case, if we look at no-fly lists, one of the issues that we have here is that the U.S. and Canada have separate no-fly lists, but because somewhere upwards of 80 percent of flights leaving Canada travel over United States airspace, the U.S. no-fly list gets applied to flights leaving Canada, and individuals who aren’t on the Canadian no-fly lists end up being denied boarding flights because of their listing on the U.S. no-fly list, which Canada has no control over.
There’s also that particular geographic and relationship and the closeness of the United States and Canada that has an impact as well.
MH: Although exact numbers are hard to come by, there are around 125,000 to 150,000 enlisted members of the IRGC in Iran at any given time. Service for most conscripted members is relatively short, meaning there is a huge number of current and former IRGC members in Iran and around the world — who may now be treated as potential terrorists by the U.S. government and its intelligence partners.
TM: There’s no extra security being provided to the citizens and residents of Canada, the United States, or any other country by placing the entire IRGC on a terrorist watchlist. It’s a political move. And, if anything, the proliferation of watchlists and of anti-terrorism laws that single out particular nationalities, or any laws that single out a particular population, results in greater division.
MH: In Iran, men need to fulfill their military duties before they can move forward with their lives.
AM: When you are in Iran, a proportion of your civil rights depend — the requirement for gaining those types of civil rights, like having a passport, being able to go out of the country, doing even anything, any deeds in your name, you have through this mandatory service.
MH: That’s Ali M., an Iranian-Canadian software engineer in his mid-40s who was banned from entering the U.S. last year. He asked us not to use his full name for fear of retaliation.
AM: You become eligible to go to do your service at 18 years old. But if you do your university and stuff, it gets pushed back.
I was drafted to the IRGC. And this conscription doesn’t give you any choice at all. So you are just going to be conscripted and you have to go, and not going can have really severe penalties that can lead to jail time.
MH: Ali left Iran with his family in 2010 for a better life. He became a Canadian citizen in 2014. And last year, he tried to take a trip with his family to California.
AM: When I was passing the customs border of the U.S. in the airport, the officer asked me: Did you do military service?
I told him: Yeah, everybody in Iran has to do military service. You can’t have a passport without military service.
MH: Like Toghraei, he was taken to another room and interrogated by a customs agent.
AM: And, he told me: No, I’m not asking: Where did you do [it]? I’m asking which organization [did you do it with]?
And he used the names in Farsi, which was really strange for me. He told me: Did you do your mandatory military service in Sepâh or did you do it in the Artesh?
And that was the point that I started being worried that, OK, something is not right here.
MH: Ali was told he was inadmissible to the U.S. Prior to this, traveling back and forth from Canada and the U.S. had been no problem.
AM: I’ve traveled to the U.S. prior to this maybe a hundred times. So I’ve been traveling, even to go to some restaurants on the other side of the border to get something, to grab a bite and come back. I mean, I was so comfortable going back and forth.
I had many plans in my life that they’re all completely useless right now. I can’t imagine what’s going to happen in five or 10 years. I don’t have peace of mind anymore. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I mean, I had this feeling that the system was designed in a way that it’s fair, it’s based on justice. But now, I’m not sure anymore.
So, to be honest, this peace of mind is gone. And I can’t really plan for [the] future anymore.
MH: Problems faced by former conscripts may get worse. In Britain, its parliament recently debated the possibility of also designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization. Hawkish groups in Canada have also pushed for it there.
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MH: And this doesn’t just affect conscripted members, but their loved ones, too:
Mahdis: It’s been hard. It’s been very hard for me because, I mean, I don’t understand it.
MH: That’s Mahdis, whose Iranian husband was denied entry to the U.S. because of his past conscription to the IRGC.
Mahdis: I am a teacher. I am an ESL instructor. And I just don’t understand because part of my job — and this is what I’ve been telling the senators, I’ve been telling them all that — for me, being an ESL instructor means that teaching English in the states requires me to educate and just represent American culture to the newcomers and all the immigrants. So I basically play a very important role in helping immigrants become successful later in their life. So, I basically teach them about the American Dream and, well, what a great country we have — which we do! But I don’t understand, how can I tell my own students that I’m drawing this perfect picture while I cannot even live with my own husband after eight years of marriage? Will my students even trust me or even trust my principles with such irony that I have? Because it’s been eight years of my marriage and five years I’ve been living separated.
Sam: You basically fled your country. You basically escaped from a dictatorship in the quest of freedom. And this thing happens — this thing kind of like chased you — and now you are facing even more problems.
MH: That’s Sam, a 38-year-old Canadian citizen. He asked us not to use his full name for fear of retaliation. He was conscripted to the IRGC years ago, and was recently blocked from entering the U.S. when he tried to drive across the border from Canada to see his girlfriend’s family:
Sam: I’m a decent person and I was a decent person in my community, in my country. I have three masters’: I’m an MBA, a software engineer, and I have a master’s in software and also networking. I don’t even have a ticket. I don’t even have a parking ticket.
MH: The IRGC has different service arms, including the externally-oriented Quds Force and a domestic wing known as the Basij, which has been accused of engaging in repression in Iran.
While some former IRGC officers living in the West have been credibly accused of human rights abuses, the organization drafts hundreds of thousands of conscripts for all types of jobs. Failure to report for conscription is considered illegal, and without completing their mandatory service, Iranians cannot claim passports — or sometimes even open bank accounts.
AM: You know, being conscripted, a draftee, is not the same as being an official.
MH: That’s Ali, again.
AM: You’re not there to be part of the organization. You’re there just only to do the handiworks.
MH: The political tension between the U.S. and Iran is now holding the lives of hundreds of thousands of people hostage.
After a brief moment of hope following the signing of the Obama-era nuclear agreement, U.S.-Iran relations worsened under former President Trump. Crushing economic sanctions have immiserated millions of formerly middle-class Iranians. Meanwhile, Iranian and U.S. forces in the Middle East remain stuck in a cycle of attacks and targeted killings.
The Trump administration’s terrorist designation of the IRGC was seen as a further blow to the ties between both countries that Obama had tried to cultivate. Now, ordinary Iranians are collateral damage.
The Biden administration has also shown no sign of removing the listing of the IRGC, or making accommodations for former conscripts of the group.
[Low, serious music.]
MH: The consequences from the designation have been brutal for people like Moe Toghraei. After losing permission to enter the U.S., he lost his job — and the resulting financial pressure led to further strain on his nearly 30-year marriage:
MT: And after several months, my wife — or actually, my ex-wife — she asked for divorce because, in quotation, I brought “stress in house.”
[Sighs.] And after that I went out and I lived in Airbnb for several months. So I lost my family, too. My daughter, I cannot see her anymore. I devoted my life to my daughter, but I cannot see her anymore — just every two weeks I can see her for a couple of hours. So basically I lost my job, money, my family, and everything
One other piece of fact that they didn’t know is: I escaped from that country. I escaped from that country because IRGC, they arrested me in a demonstration that happened a few years before coming to Canada. They arrested me, they tortured me. And I was in a prison and when I escaped, I applied to come to Canada.
MH: Toghraei continues publishing books about wastewater management as he searches for consulting work in Canada. He spends time connecting with other former Iranian conscripts living in the West, passing information to local officials and civil liberties groups to try and spur some change in their situation.
But, for now, the future for Toghraei, Ali, and many others is unclear.
AG: That was Intercept reporter Murtaza Hussain.
And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted. Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. José Olivares is the lead producer. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. And Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
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Until next time, I’m Ali Gharib.