Officials discussed special travel exemptions for Iran’s soccer team as backlash mounted

Discussions about special travel exemptions to allow Iranian soccer players and officials to enter Canada continued behind the scenes last spring, even as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was publicly denouncing a planned exhibition match with Iran’s team, new documents show.

Through information access law, CBC News has obtained weeks of correspondence exchanged between multiple federal government departments and Canada Soccer back in May. The messages reveal new details about what unfolded before the match was called off in response to public and political blowback.

In late May — under pressure from the families of Canadians killed when Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down Flight PS752 in January 2020, killing all 176 people onboard — Canada Soccer announced it had called off an exhibition game against Iran planned for June 5.

The family members had been writing letters to Canada Soccer and federal ministers arguing that the planned match was “an insult” to families seeking justice for the deaths of 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents killed when the plane went down.

Trudeau weighed in personally on the issue on May 17 when he said publicly “it wasn’t a very good idea to invite the Iranian soccer team here to Canada.

“But that’s something that the organizers are going to have to explain.”

On May 24, Trudeau told journalists that “this game was a bad idea.”

WATCH: Trudeau discusses Canada Soccer inviting Iran’s team

Trudeau discusses Canada Soccer inviting Iran’s team to Canada

While in Vancouver, BC, on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said again that he thinks the game is a bad idea and that no federal funding has gone to it.

Emails obtained by CBC News show Canada Soccer originally told the government in a May 12 email it wanted to host Iran because the team had a style of play similar to that of Morocco’s team, one of Canada’s opponents at the FIFA World Cup.

Canada Soccer wrote in an email that day it was aware the game could raise questions and contacted Trudeau’s office two days before announcing the match.

‘We are not naive’

“We are not naive that there would be political and social issues and questions,” Earl Cochrane, the general secretary at Canada Soccer, told Sport Canada in an email on May 12.

“Had a chat with Global Affairs last week to discuss. We had raised it with the PMO two days ago and while they all recognized there may be opposition, they were OK with moving forward.”

On May 12, Soccer Canada emailed its contact at Sport Canada to inform it that it had given the PMO a prepared media statement about the game and had asked a government department to do the same for Canada Soccer.

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) told CBC News last week it doesn’t approve independent sport organizations’ decisions and “the decision on this game was Canada Soccer’s alone.”

WATCH/Flight PS752 victims’ families outraged by planned Canada soccer match with Iran

Flight PS752 victims’ families outraged by Canada’s soccer match with Iran

The families of the victims in the downing of Flight PS752 are demanding Canada Soccer cancel a planned game with Iran’s soccer team, saying they feel betrayed by the move.

Cochrane said in a statement to CBC News last week that Canada Soccer’s normal process is to seek guidance from the government in such situations and he wasn’t looking for government approval.

“Despite the competitive sporting reasons to schedule this match, it was a mistake for us to schedule the match … and we acknowledge that error and have learned an important lesson,” he said.

Emails viewed by CBC News show that as Trudeau first voiced concerns about the game on May 17, federal departments were already discussing ways to issue visas to the team to facilitate the match.

On May 11, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) emailed Sport Canada — a branch of Canadian Heritage — saying it had learned about the planned exhibition match through the media. It warned of issues related to the match — including the fact that Canada Soccer would have to pay Iran an appearance fee, something which the GAC said would “be poorly received by some.”

The email — signed by Laurent Dondey, a departmental adviser at GAC — also said the federal government might have to issue “National Interest Letters to facilitate the Iranian team’s entry into Canada in a timely manner.”

National interest letters are issued by top federal officials to expedite the entry of foreign nationals to Canada. They’re supposed to be issued only in extraordinary circumstances.

The GAC also warned in the May 11 email that “failure to process visas resulting in Iran’s inability to travel to play in Canada would be used by the Iranian government to accuse Canada of politicizing the World Cup.”

“If visas are not issued, Iran could launch an official complaint against Canada Soccer and it could also argue that Canada should not host the World Cup in 2026,” Dondey added.

“Canada Soccer could face some form of sanction from FIFA … Canada would also lose out on the opportunity to play an important warm-up game.”

On May 13, Anne Dionne, a senior program analyst at Sport Canada, sent an email to individuals at GAC and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) warning that the window for obtaining visas for the visiting Iranian team was closing.

Canada Soccer now confirms it didn’t face any penalties from FIFA after canceling the game.

Expediting visas could create ‘issues,’ official warned

“IRCC informed Canada Soccer on Wednesday of the usual delay for Canada to issue a visa for someone from Iran, traveling to Canada,” Dionne wrote. “The normal delay is 100 days once the request is submitted. At this point, IRCC hasn’t received any requests from the Iranian team.

“Expediting the requests to issue visas could present potential issues.”

Four days later, Trudeau made his first public comment questioning the wisdom of hosting the Iranian team.

Two days after that, on May 19, IRCC told Sport Canada in an email it would “not be in a position” to issue the national interest letters and they would have to come from another department.

On May 20, Dionne emailed a colleague in her department to say that Global Affairs had told her GAC’s own deputy minister would be the one authorized to issue the national interest letters.

On May 24 — the day Trudeau told journalists that the game “was a bad idea” — Krista Schaap at IRCC told Dionne in an email that her department had “received 58 visa requests” from the Iranians, “which is higher than the 45 applications Canada Soccer indicated last week that we should expect!”

Iranian players look on during a FIFA World Cup qualifier match between Iran and Cambodia in Tehran on October 10, 2019. (Amin M. Jamali/Getty Images)

On May 26, Canada Soccer — acknowledging that the idea of ​​a friendly game with Iran would be “significantly divisive” — announced it was canceling the match. That same day, according to Iranian media, the manager of Iran’s soccer team was in Turkey trying to pick up the visas.

IRCC now says it didn’t expedit the visa process and the game was canceled before it could process any of the visas applications.

Global Affairs told CBC News in a media statement Tuesday that it followed “an administrative process to access the requests” for national interest letters and the game was canceled before that process was complete. The letters were never issued, the department said.

‘It’s unacceptable’

Hamed Esmaeilion is spokesperson for a group of Flight PS752 victims’ families; his wife and nine-year-old daughter died on the flight. He said federal departments should never have contemplated visas or national interest letters for the Iranian team and called the whole thing “unacceptable.”

“We knew the officials of Islamic Republic of Iran are coming to this country, people who are related to IRGC, security forces… This is absolutely wrong,” he said. “It’s very alarming for everyone.”

Hamed Esmaeilion’s wife Parisa Eghbalian and daughter Reera Esmaeilion died on Flight PS752. (Submitted by Hamed Esmaeilion)

Families pursuing justice from the Iranian regime over the destruction of Flight PS752 have reported acts of harassment and intimidation to police. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has called the reports “credible” and said they’re linked to Iran’s proxies active in Canada, which could constitute foreign interference.

The IRGC is known to have political sway over sports clubs in Iran and the victims’ families said they feared the regime would send its own representatives to Canada posing as team officials.

Dennis Horak, Canada’s former chargé d’affaires in Iran, said the government shouldn’t have considered issuing national interest letters to the Iranian team to begin with.

“It’s a shocking misuse of the national interest letter process,” said Horak, who worked at Canada’s embassy in Tehran from 2009 until it closed in 2012.

“They’re meant to be used very sparingly, and only in the most important circumstances. An exhibition game against the Iranians certainly doesn’t qualify.”

Horak said “the IRGC has their hands in virtually everything in Iran” and it’s “entirely possible” that IRGC officers or members of Iran’s ministry of intelligence were planning to join the delegation coming to Canada.

The Trudeau government has been under intense public pressure from Flight PS752 families to take a tougher stance against Iran’s regime and list the IRGC as a terrorist organization.

Those calls have only intensified as the Islamic Republic cracks down on protests inside Iran, now in their seventh week.

Iranians protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police in Tehran on Oct. 1, 2022. (Associated Press file photo/ Middle East Images)

Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in the Middle East, said officials in dictatorships — including Iran’s — have been known to use sports to sanitize their reputation.

“They can use some of the proceeds of sports to finance a range of activities, and in the case of Iran, that can include a number of things that the IRGC does, like support for terrorism abroad,” said Juneau.

Before the match was cancelled, Iranian media quoted the head of Iran’s national team saying Canada Soccer would pay Iran’s soccer federation $400,000 for the match — half of which the team would take in profit. Canada Soccer said that, in the end, it did not exchange money with the team.

The offices of Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly both told CBC News last week they raised concerns with Canada Soccer when they learned about the game.

“We were extremely disappointed with Soccer Canada’s initial decision,” wrote Maeva Proteau, a spokesperson for Joly’s office. “We are not interested in promoting or supporting the Iranian regime in any shape or form.”

Canada Soccer said it followed all the normal protocol for international sporting events, including in how it handled the visas.

The soccer organization said it later met with victims’ families of Flight PS752 and continues “to deeply regret that our decision hurt people, which was never our intent.”

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