Politics

Iranian soccer official coming to Canada attended party years ago with man sought by FBI over kidnap plot

The head of the Iranian national soccer team coming to Vancouver next month for a controversial exhibition game recently attended a party with a man wanted by the FBI in relation to a plot to kidnap international targets, including three people in Canada.

Photos online show head of Iran’s soccer team with man wanted for kidnapping plot involving people in Canada

Iranian national soccer team manager Hamid Estili (left) with Mahmoud Khazein (second from the right) are seen at a birthday party believed to have taken place in 2018. (Entekhab.ir )

Editor's Note:

An earlier version of this story contained errors in reporting about a photo featuring Hamid Estili and Mahmoud Khazein. Our original reporting stated that the photo was taken April 8, 2022. The photo actually appears to be from 2018. Our story reported that Mahmoud Khazein was wanted by the FBI at the time the photo was taken. In fact, he was indicted in New York in July, 2021. CBC News does not know the extent of any relationship between the two men.

The head of the Iranian national soccer team coming to Vancouver next month for a controversial exhibition game appears in a photo posted online with a man wanted by the FBI in relation to a plot to kidnap international targets, including three people in Canada.

The photo, which appears to have been taken at a birthday party in Tehran in 2018, shows Hamid Estili, now manager of the Iranian national team, with Mahmoud Khazein.

Khazein is facing criminal charges in the U.S. which include conspiracy to kidnap, conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. He was indicted in July, 2021.

The extent of the relationship between the two men is not known.

One of the alleged targets of the kidnapping plot, Masih Alinejad, told CBC News the FBI is now looking into the possible connection between Estili and Khazein after she posted about the photo on social media.

"The FBI told me they are going to look into this case," said Alinejad, a prominent Iranian-American author and activist who is an outspoken foe of Iran's regime.

"I want the Canadian police to consider that as well … Sports federations are being controlled by members of the Revolutionary Guards. Would you allow anyone associated with the kidnappers to come to Canada to enjoy freedom?"

Iranian sports clubs reportedly controlled by IRGC

The FBI and RCMP would not comment, saying their usual practice is to not confirm or deny investigations unless charges have been laid.

Many sports clubs in Iran have been taken over, directly or indirectly, by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) due to their rising popularity and profitability, according to experts and several media reports. 

Iran's soccer team is headed to Vancouver for an exhibition game on June 5. The game is going ahead over the objections of the families of those who died aboard Flight PS752 when it was shot down on Jan. 8, 2020 over Tehran. Those families say they have been repeatedly harassed, intimidated and threatened by proxies of the IRGC.

A woman places a flower at a vigil in Toronto on Saturday, January 8, 2022 in memory of the 176 victims of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

The IRGC was responsible for shooting down the Ukrainian passenger plane shortly after takeoff with two surface-to-air missiles. Everyone onboard died, including 55 Canadians and 30 permanent residents.

Victims' families are publicly demanding that Canada Soccer cancel the game and that the Canadian government revoke any visas granted. Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has condemned the event as well.

Estili, the head of the soccer team, recently said 50 people are travelling to Vancouver for the game, according to an Iranian news outlet. He did not respond to CBC's request for comment on Instagram.

Estili also met this month with Saeed Khatbizadeh, spokesperson for Iran's foreign ministry, to discuss what Khatbizadeh called the Iranian government's extraordinary efforts to facilitate the team's travel to Canada, according to an Iranian media report.

Kaveh Shahrooz, a lawyer and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said it's "a shock that people who openly associate with Iran's intelligence agents can enter Canada so easily.

"This is both a national security concern and an insult to us."

Khazein posted a different group photo from the birthday party that included Estili on his own Instagram account in April. Khazein follows only 30 people, including Estili.

Court documents describe Khazein as having been an Iranian intelligence asset since at least 2014. He was appointed to a role in the Basij, a volunteer auxiliary division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, around 1999, the court records allege.

The FBI says Mahmoud Khazein is an intelligence asset of the Iranian government who is wanted in the U.S. on multiple charges. (FBI )

He was one of four alleged members of an Iranian intelligence network charged in July 2021 in Manhattan over what authorities said were attempts to lure Alinejad, three individuals from Canada and a fifth person in the United Kingdom to Iran. Victims in the United Arab Emirates were also targeted, according to the indictment.

When asked if the government granted visas for the game, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said in a statement that it could not comment on any specific visa requests "without written consent" due to privacy rules.

It said that all visitors are "carefully screened" before coming into Canada.

"This screening ensures that they do not pose a threat to the health, safety or security of Canadians," wrote IRCC in a media statement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke out against the soccer game earlier this week, saying he didn't think it was a very good idea but that it was Canada Soccer's decision to make. Asked whether the federal government might refuse to grant visas to the visiting Iranian team, Trudeau did not answer.

CBC News asked Canada Soccer if it wrote letters to help the Iranians get visas for the game, but the organization didn't answer the question.

"Canada Soccer continues to follow all international and federal protocols for international sporting events in Canada and will continue to work through the process as required," said the statement by Soccer Canada. 

Estili spoke recently on Iranian television about the possibility that the game might be cancelled.

While he suggested that sports in Iran are "partially" influenced by politics, Estili said he sees this game as an opportunity to bring a message of friendship and peace to the Canadian people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. Have a story idea? Email her at ashley.burke@cbc.ca

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