A planned friendly match between the national soccer teams of Iran and Canada in Vancouver on June 5 was supposed to reduce tensions between the two countries. Instead, it wound up being canceled after setting off a firestorm of criticism, adding to a litany of grievances between Iran and Canada.
The match was in line with the upcoming 2022 Qatar World Cup qualifiers, but Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had criticized the Canadian Foccer Federation’s decision to hold the event. “I think it wasn’t ideal for inviting the Iranian soccer team to Canada. But that’s something the organizers will have to explain,” Trudeau said on May 17.
On May 26, the Canadian soccer federation announced the cancellation via social media without providing any clarification.
The main reason for the controversy is the still unresolved matter of the Iranian shootdown of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 as it took off from Tehran on January 8, 2020. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) later admitted firing the missile that took down the plane, alleging it was an accident that happened in confusion, following an Iranian attack on US forces in Iraq in the aftermath of the US assassination of IRGC General Qassem Soleimani. A spokesman for the Association of the Victims of Flight 752 of Ukrainian Airlines had criticized the match, saying that “Families who had lost loved ones considered the game a slap in the face.” All 176 passengers and crew, including fifty-seven Iranian-Canadians, died in the crash.
Opponents of the Iranian government launched a large-scale campaign supporting the revocation of the match. The Iranian opposition argued that hosting the Iranian team was equivalent to welcoming terrorists to Canada. Meanwhile, many in the Iranian-Canadian community welcomed the competition, and more than twenty-seven thousand tickets were sold in just the first hour.
Furthermore, a prominent opponent of the Iranian government posted on Twitter a photo showing the head coach of the Iranian national team with an Iranian intelligence officer, suggesting that this person might be related to the Iranian national soccer team. Mahmoud Khazein was wanted by the FBI last year for trying to kidnap an Iranian women’s rights activist in New York. The photo was allegedly taken during a birthday party in Tehran and it also features a famous Iranian performer and actor, which shows that many celebrities were present at the party and doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a systematic connection between Iranian soccer and Iran’s intelligence community.
The Canadian Football Federation initially defended its decision to hold the match: “At the Canadian Football Federation, we believe in the power and miracle of sport to bring people with different cultural backgrounds and political beliefs closer together. Iran is a member of FIFA and one of the thirty-two teams present at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Accordingly, the Canadian Football Federation will follow all international rules for holding this [friendly] match.”
But, with the federation’s recent decision, it is clear that it finally succumbed to pressure from the Iranian opposition and supporters.
Relations between Iran and Canada have been troubled for nearly two decades following the killing by intelligence officers of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photographer, while in prison.
The Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper closed the Canadian embassy in Tehran in 2012, calling Iran the “most significant threat to global peace and security.” Trudeau promised to reopen the embassy in his first campaign in 2013 but hasn’t done so.
The Canadian government also closed the Iranian embassy in Ottawa in 2012, claiming that the Iranian embassy was trying to recruit Iranian-Canadians. “The Iranian Embassy shouldn’t interfere in their choices. Canadian security organizations will act to prevent threats and intimidation of Canadians,” a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in a statement. Kambiz Sheikh Hassan, the then charge d’affaires of Iran in Ottawa, said in a statement at the time: “We strongly dismiss baseless allegations by [some] media that [the] ‘Iranian Embassy has been recruiting ethnic Iranians in Canada to be of service to Iran.’”
Criticizing the previous administration’s policy of severing diplomatic relations with Tehran in October 2016, Trudeau said: “It is clear that this case would have been much easier to deal with if the previous government had not closed our embassy in Iran for political reasons.”
The “political reasons” that Trudeau spoke about appear to refer to the closure of the British embassy in Tehran in 2011, following an attack on the embassy by an Iranian mob angered by British sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank. Britain reopened its embassy in Tehran in 2015 as Iran negotiated a nuclear agreement with world powers, but Canada hasn’t.
When asked about the ongoing impasse, the Canadian government’s official response is “security concerns.” According to the latest statistics, the Iranian community living in Canada numbers more than two hundred thousand. A substantial percentage of these people are students and researchers who go to Iran regularly to visit their families and could benefit from a resumption of Canadian consular services in Tehran.
Restoring relations would also facilitate direct diplomatic talks between Iranian and Canadian officials to resolve the matter of compensation for the victims of Flight 752. It would enable Iran to pursue cases involving people who have been charged in Iran for corruption and embezzlement and who fled to Canada.
Canada and Iran could also engage in dialogue and cooperation on common security issues in the Middle East and restore economic ties if Iran returns to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal that the Donald Trump administration quit in 2018 and that the Biden administration is trying to revive.
The lack of diplomatic relations has deepened mistrust and misunderstandings between Iran and Canada and created a burden for Iranian Canadians. The soccer match between Iran and Canada was an opportunity to repair the damage, but it is now just another missed opportunity.
Abbas Qaidari is a researcher on international security and defense policy. Follow him on Twitter: @AbbasQaidari.
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