As he took his seat in an interrogation room at Calgary International Airport, Moe Toghraei felt little cause for alarm. A wastewater management engineer based in Madison, Wisconsin, he had returned to Canada, where his wife and children lived, for a few weeks last October for a routine visit. Now, he was heading back to Wisconsin for work.
Travelers to the U.S. from the Calgary airport go through customs and passport control at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoint at their point of departure, in Canada, before boarding. Toghraei, 53, a Canadian citizen of Iranian background, had gone through this process many times before without incident.
He sat quietly in the room waiting alongside a handful of others who had been marked for secondary inspection. He assumed he had been flagged because of a computer glitch or some kind of random selection that would involve a few extra questions before traveling. When his name was called, Toghraei — short, soft-spoken, with glasses and a salt-and-pepper goatee — walked to the desk at the front of the room to speak with the agent.
After Toghraei confirmed his name and a few other details, the agent got to the point: “Where did you do your military service?”
He immediately became tense. “I’d never been asked such a thing before at a border crossing,” he later recalled. “When they asked me that question, I began to think that something must be seriously wrong.”
“I was just doing my mandatory military service as a young man and I didn’t have the freedom to choose.”
Young men in Iran, where Toghraei was born and raised before immigrating to Canada roughly two decades ago, must do a two-year period of mandatory military service. Toghraei was no exception. Conscripted in his early 20s, he was assigned to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, known in Iran as the Sepah. In the IRGC, Toghraei worked a desk job translating documents related to water management. Now, he was suddenly being asked about his decades-ago assignment by a U.S. government official. “When they asked me specifically what branch of the military,” Toghraei said, “I told them honestly that my unit was in the Sepah.”
In 2019, amid a campaign to raise pressure on the Iranian government, the Trump administration officially labeled the IRGC a terrorist organization. The designation was likely why Toghraei found himself being interrogated despite never facing trouble before.
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. Had he used weapons? Only for basic rifle training in the first few days of his service. “He even asked me things like the name of my boss in Iran and where my office was located,” Toghraei said. “I said honestly again that I couldn’t remember such things. This all happened decades ago. Even I had forgotten the details.”
The agents became frustrated with his answers. After a while, Toghraei said, their demeanor turned hostile.
Eventually, he missed his flight. “I was just doing my mandatory military service as a young man and I didn’t have the freedom to choose,” Toghraei recalled telling his interrogators. “I told them I had been to the U.S. many times throughout my life and never had any problem. Now I am 53 years old. So can you explain why this is suddenly happening to me?”
Four hours after he was first taken into secondary inspection, an agent broke the news to Toghraei: He had been deemed inadmissible to the United States. His temporary national visa, which had been approved seven months earlier, was stamped over: “CANCELLED.” Toghraei received no further information and, soon after, he was told to leave.
His short trip back to Canada to see his family ended with Toghraei banned from the U.S. He did not know how he would explain to his boss in Madison why he would not be returning to work, nor what he would do about the apartment, car, and personal belongings he had there. Toghraei had never had legal troubles in his life. In late middle age, he was being told that he was too dangerous to allow through an international border.
Toghraei walked out of the airport dazed. In the chill of the Calgary autumn, he sat down on a bench to call his wife. As he opened his phone, he began to cry. The quiet waste management engineer had no idea that the moment — the ban from the U.S., caused by the IRGC terror listing — was only the first chapter in the near-total unraveling of his life.
Toghraei is just one of many Iranian dual nationals of Western countries who have been detained, interrogated, or denied entry from the United States, Mexico, and the United Kingdom in the two years since the Trump administration designated the IRGC as a terrorist group. Over two dozen individuals with Western passports who did mandatory military service in the IRGC at some time in their life told The Intercept about experiences like Toghraei’s at international ports of entry. The men — as conscripts, they are all men — are mostly Iranian Canadian, but some hailed from other places, including Australia and European Union countries.
The problems described by the Canadian former conscripts began after the Trump administration designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. In announcing the move, President Donald Trump said the “IRGC actively participates in, finances, and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft.” Elite divisions within the IRGC conduct Iran’s clandestine foreign policy, including carrying out proxy wars and supporting nonstate actors that have targeted civilians. It was the first time, Trump said, that the U.S. had designated part of a foreign government as a terror group.
Many, like Toghraei, disclosed their IRGC service during their immigration to the West and now find themselves retroactively placed under suspicion. Many of them suspect that, owing to the designation, they have been placed on a U.S. terrorism watchlist: a process so opaque that even confirming whether one is on the list can be impossible. As non-U.S. citizens, they have little recourse to challenge their place in such a database.
The Trump administration’s designation of the Revolutionary Guards was considered highly controversial, even among critics of the Iranian government. Most rank-and-file recruits to the IRGC serve as those in other branches of the Iranian military do: without a choice. Failure to report for conscription is considered illegal, and without completing their mandatory service, Iranians cannot claim passports or even open bank accounts.
The IRGC’s designation recently became a flashpoint in U.S. negotiations with Iran aimed at reviving the Obama-era nuclear deal. While the Iranians have pushed for the Revolutionary Guards to be delisted as part of any revived agreement, the Biden administration has reportedly hesitated to take this step — potentially out of concern over how the issue will be portrayed by their domestic political opponents in future elections.
Over the past several weeks, the back and forth on the IRGC listing became public. During an appearance in Qatar last week, Robert Malley, the U.S. envoy for Iran, who suggested no nuclear accord was imminent, said that, regardless of whether a deal was struck, sanctions on the IRGC would remain in place. The Iranians, meanwhile, have sent mixed signals on the matter. Officials have occasionally hinted that they might be willing to accept the IRGC’s terrorist designation as fait accompli before returning to strongly insisting that it be delisted before any deal is signed.
Earlier this month, in an apparent reference to the IRGC listing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki suggested that the designation was outside the scope of current talks. “Iran has raised a number of issues that has nothing to do with the mutual compliance under the nuclear deal,” she said. “So, we would encourage Iran to focus on the deal negotiated in Vienna” — where the original nuclear agreement was struck — “rather than seeking to open issues outside the Vienna context.”
As likely intended by the Trump administration, the IRGC’s terrorist listing could well become a poison pill for pursuing any form of diplomacy with Iran.
“Policies like this end up creating another layer of this institutional enmity aimed at making sure that the U.S. and Iran never come to terms,” said Trita Parsi, co-founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, in reference to the Trump-era terror listing. “It inherently creates problems when you’re designating the entire army of another state as a terrorist organization, when that state also has conscription. Ultimately, these expansive definitions of terrorism end up impacting folks who had no fault of their own for their situation.”
The lives of Toghraei and others affected by this policy are now captive to domestic politics in the U.S. and the hostile U.S.-Iran relationship. Toghraei himself is a Canadian citizen who has not set foot in Iran in a decade and a half. Since being arrested and tortured in Iran following a student protest in 1999, he has feared even visiting Iran. Yet his ability to live a normal life in the West has been ruined because of a policy enacted by Trump and now carried forward by Joe Biden.
“Serving as a conscript doesn’t signal anything about a person’s ideological affiliation or politics — it shouldn’t serve as a red flag.”
In many ways, he is typical of those who have made up the bulk of IRGC recruits over the years: young men who served in the organization absent ideological purposes because they were required to by Iranian law. Though some senior Iranian security officials with alleged histories of rights abuses have lived in or visited the West, experts on the IRGC say that it is common knowledge that ordinary conscripts make up the majority of its personnel.
“The IRGC is deliberately ideological at the leadership level, but it recruits its rank and file through mandatory conscription, and a large percentage of its standing force consists of these conscripts. Generally, conscripts have no say in the matter once they are assigned to the IRGC,” said Afshon Ostovar, an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of “Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.” “Serving as a conscript doesn’t signal anything about a person’s ideological affiliation or politics — it shouldn’t serve as a red flag. As a conscript, you don’t have a choice: You’re just obeying the laws of your country.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, its parent agency the Department of Homeland Security, the White House’s National Security Council, and the State Department did not respond to requests for comment.
The designation has affected a raft of Canadian Iranians. One man, who did not want to speak on the record for fear of retaliation, said he was detained and interrogated by Mexican authorities at Cancun International Airport for over 12 hours without food and water before being sent back to Canada. A case of another, Farzad Alavi, was covered by the Canadian press after he was denied entry to the U.S. over his past conscription service even after his own wife was killed in the 2020 downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 by the Iranian military. In March, a famous Iranian singer with Canadian citizenship, Alireza Ghorbani, was slated to perform at an Iranian New Year dinner in the U.S. but was barred from entering after being interrogated about his past military service by CBP agents.
Although exact numbers are hard to come by, Ostovar and other experts say that the official figures — between 125,000 to 150,000 enlisted members of the IRGC in Iran at any given time — are “broadly correct,” while other estimates have put the number of active IRGC personnel at 190,000. Given the relatively short terms of service for most conscripted Guards, the size of the force means there are huge numbers of current and former IRGC members in Iran and living around the world, all of whom may now be treated as potential terrorists while traveling by the U.S. government and its intelligence partners.
“Conscripts serve anywhere from 18 months to two years, so every two years you’re having a new influx of tens of thousands of conscripts. Put together, you are churning out quite a lot of ex-IRGC members every decade,” said Ostovar. “Creating a dragnet targeting all these people is completely unhelpful. It’s one of the reasons why, generally speaking, we don’t list national militaries as terrorist organizations. There are just too many complicating factors.”
Last July, an Iranian Canadian electrical engineer named Shora Dehkordi was detained by Mexican authorities at the airport after arriving in Cancun for a family vacation. Dehkordi was separated from his wife and children and taken into an interrogation room where he was asked about his past military service, photographed, and given a form to fill out which included questions about his nationality and religion. Like Toghraei, he was a Canadian citizen who had been conscripted into the IRGC years ago as a young man. Dehkordi’s service had ended over a decade ago.
As his family, who were allowed to clear customs, waited for him at the baggage claim area, Dehkordi spent what felt like an eternity fielding questions from Mexican border agents. “After hours of waiting with no explanation, someone came in and told me, ‘Sorry, we cannot let you in.’ They said that this decision comes from higher authorities and there is nothing they can do,” Dehkordi said. “They didn’t even let me see my wife and kids outside. I called them on my cellphone and told them that they should continue on the trip without me.”
Dehkordi said the Mexican officials told him simply that his passport had been “flagged” and that he should take up the matter with his government. He was put on a flight back to Canada that took him to an entirely different part of the country than where he lives.
A consultant for a multinational firm with offices in the U.S., Dehkordi’s job requires him to make frequent trips to the U.S. Although he has earned a temporary reprieve due to a slowdown on travel due to the pandemic, he fears that in future he may lose his job if his inability to move freely persists.
“I’ve been living in Canada for almost 10 years. I’ve been law-abiding. I pay my taxes. I work like any other person. This is me. I have no association with the IRGC or any military organization in Iran,” Dehkordi said. “I have young kids, and they are afraid that every time we go as a family to the airport, we are going to be detained. I left Iran because I couldn’t really tolerate the situation there with no freedom of speech, no personal freedoms. Now it feels like I have no place in my old country and no place in my new country because of this situation.”
The Intercept interviewed others who had similar experiences at borders in North America and in European countries, many of whom did not want to speak on record for fear of retaliation. Some were detained and questioned at border checkpoints but ultimately allowed to pass, while others were barred from entry and immediately deported. Hundreds of former Iranian conscripts have shared similar stories in WhatsApp and Telegram chat groups reviewed by The Intercept. The proscription has affected U.S. relatives of former conscripts, who have been separated from their spouses and other family members as a result of the Trump administration’s designation and the attendant inability of their spouses to get immigration papers or travel to the U.S.
Many of those who spoke to The Intercept described U.S. border agents asking them about their military service specifically using the Persian-language terms Artesh and Sepah to refer to the regular military and the IRGC, respectively. One former IRGC conscript, in response to questions from U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents about his religion, even produced documents showing that he was Jewish, something that he had concealed in Iran during his service. The individual, who was a Canadian citizen traveling across the U.S.-Canada border and asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation, was denied entry by an agent who, he said, told him that “our countries are at war.”
“It feels like I have no place in my old country and no place in my new country.”
The problems faced by former conscripts seem set to get worse. The British parliament recently debated the possibility of following the United States’s lead in designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization, with parliamentarians stating that the matter is “under review.” Hawkish special interest groups in Canada and Europe have also pushed for further designations. The possibility of more countries around the world listing the IRGC as a terrorist organization has former conscripts fearing a future in which they are unable to travel or subject to worse restrictions at home: treated as terrorists in the West at large and in their own adopted countries.
“We are all reading the news and feeling completely helpless,” said Ali M., an Iranian Canadian software engineer in his mid-40s who was banned from entering the U.S. last year and also did not want to use his full name for fear of retaliation. “If other countries follow the U.S. and take this step, it’s only going to become a bigger problem in our lives. We need the U.S. to know that regardless of their problem with the Iranian government, we had no choice in this matter of being conscripted.”
Like others who spoke with The Intercept, Ali is an educated professional who frequently works with U.S. companies. His job is in IT, or information technology, and requires him to travel to the U.S. to meet clients and work on projects, something which he has done hundreds of times over the past five years. Deprived of his freedom to travel, with no accusations of any wrongdoing against him that he could even contest, Ali might lose his ability to even earn a livelihood for his family.
“We’re ordinary people, man. I did my mandatory service in Iran because that was the law there, and I never hid my conscription when I immigrated to Canada because I’ve always followed the law here as well. We came here because we were seeking a better life,” he said. “I don’t know what is going to happen down the road anymore, who is going to pay my mortgage and pay the expenses for my kids. The authorities should at least give us a chance to prove ourselves, to prove that we are not any danger, but nobody listens.”
Due to its secretive nature, it is not possible to confirm whether foreign citizens are on the U.S. government terrorism watchlist or no-fly list. Several civil liberties experts who spoke with The Intercept said that the experiences of Iranian dual nationals of Western countries being detained at border crossings is consistent with being watchlisted. The size and scope of the list is unclear, but past reporting by The Intercept as well as documents disclosed during lawsuits have pegged its size at over 1.2 million people. Information from the watchlist is also shared with foreign countries, which has led in the past to U.S. citizens being detained while traveling abroad.
“The extent to which U.S. watchlists are garbage-in, garbage-out is shocking and the consequences of watchlisting no less so,” said Ramzi Kassem, a City University of New York School of Law professor and founder of the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility project, or CLEAR. “What compounds the problem is that shoddy watchlist information is often shared with foreign governments, with drastic repercussions for those concerned when they arrive in countries where the authorities torture and disappear people with even less restraint than the United States.”
Kassem, who has litigated watchlisting cases with CLEAR, noted that designating the IRGC as a terror group was bound to have profound consequences for large numbers of people.
“It is taking a contemporary, highly politicized terrorism designation and applying it without limitation to hundreds of thousands of people who had no real choice in their situation.”
“When the United States designates a large branch of a foreign military, like the IRGC, in a country that has mandatory conscription for men, like Iran, the fallout is immense,” he said. “It is taking a contemporary, highly politicized terrorism designation and applying it without limitation to hundreds of thousands of people who had no real choice in their situation, most of whom are not currently nor even recently affiliated with the designated group.”
The former IRGC conscripts are not the only people of Iranian origin who have fallen victim to geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and Iran at the border. Following the U.S. government’s assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassim Suleimani, reports emerged of hundreds of travelers of Iranian origin, including American citizens, being detained by border officials. In one case, a Canadian truck driver even reported being denied entry to the U.S. due to his last name.
Experts on watchlisting say that the consequences of treating all former IRGC conscripts as possible terrorists threaten to systematize this type of harassment far more broadly.
“There are tens of thousands of Iranian Canadian men alone who have done conscription service in the Iranian military and are potentially affected by these watchlisting policies. This affects a lot of people; it isn’t just a few cases,” said Tim McSorley, the national coordinator for the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, a civil rights organization based in Canada that has consulted with Iranian Canadians. “When you are traveling with your family to a foreign country where you do not have access to legal protections and find yourself detained, it’s a terrifying experience. That is something people shouldn’t have to go through — absent real, credible evidence that they pose a security threat, and not simply because they were forced to serve in a foreign army at some point in their life.”
McSorley said that placement on the U.S. watchlist can affect individuals’ ability to travel anywhere in the world, as the flight manifest of any aircraft that crosses U.S. airspace is subject to vetting. In other instances of watchlisting, U.S. intelligence information including individuals’ watchlist status have reportedly been shared with foreign governments — sometimes authoritarian ones. Such information sharing likely gave rise to the former IRGC conscripts’ problems traveling to Mexico and other countries that inquired about their military service.
“There are many people who fled Iran because they had disagreements with the government there, though they still had to serve in the military like anyone else. Now these same people have Western citizenship and are facing detentions, interrogations, travel bans and other possible restrictions on their freedom while being treated as suspected terrorists,” said McSorley. “This is another consequence of very broad antiterrorism laws and watchlisting practices that on paper are meant to serve security purposes but simply end up damaging the lives of people who pose no threat.”
Photos: Amber Bracken for The Intercept
As Moe Toghraei sat outside Calgary International Airport dialing his wife at home to tell her that he had been barred from the United States, he did not yet realize how drastically his life was about to change. Shortly after informing his manager that he was not able to return to work, Toghraei was let go from his job in Wisconsin. The resulting financial pressure from his unemployment contributed to the disintegration of his nearly 30-year marriage.
“I lost everything because of this. Two months after I was let go from my job, my wife asked for divorce, because of the stress she said this had brought into our lives and because I was unable to provide,” Toghraei told me at a Tim Hortons coffee shop in Edmonton, Alberta, where he is now living with a friend. “I lost a lot because of the way that I was treated. It was not just money lost and the impact on my family but emotional problems and psychological problems that I suffered.”
“I lost everything because of this. Two months after I was let go from my job, my wife asked for divorce.”
Toghraei continues publishing books about wastewater management and recently got consulting work in Canada. He spends an increasing amount of his time connecting with other former Iranian conscripts living in the West. They share information about their experiences, which Toghraei and others pass to local officials and civil liberties groups to spur some change in their situation. The former conscripts have also found a measure of moral support in their connections; many of them are depressed or fearful about their futures. Those that Toghraei speaks to are nervous about ending up like him, particularly if more countries follow the United States’s lead in designating the IRGC as a terror group.
Toghraei himself feels trapped between two worlds. He immigrated from Iran decades ago and built a happy and successful life in Canada with a family and career. Now, he is a hostage to U.S. policy toward the country of his birth — a place that he doesn’t even feel safe to visit. While other former conscripts are closely watching the outcome of the ongoing Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, where the issue of the IRGC’s listing remains still on the agenda, Toghraei has lost hope that his predicament will be solved.
“I am now in a situation where both the U.S. hates me and Iran hates me. I’m on this blacklist that I can’t control. I don’t know what my situation will be tomorrow in Canada, let alone if I can travel abroad to Europe or Mexico,” Toghraei said, in between slow sips of coffee. “High-ranking officials from the Iranian government travel freely to America to negotiate without problems, but I’m just a little person so they feel they can just destroy my life with their policy. I think it is very shameful for the U.S. government that they treated me this way.”
“I’m not looking to push anyone over this or to cause any problems,” Toghraei said. “I just want people to know what they did to me.”