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Iran protests hit the international sports stage

AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
Iranian soccer fans hold up signs reading Woman Life Freedom and Freedom For Iran, prior to the World Cup group B soccer match between England and Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium in in Doha, Qatar, Monday, Nov. 21, 2022.

The Iranian football team lost its first World Cup match to England 6:2 — but achieved a victory of sorts for their fellow Iranians by apparently protesting the oppressive regime back home.

In a historic World Cup taking place in Qatar — the first Muslim country ever to receive FIFA’s trust — and in front of billions of people around the world watching, as the Iranian national anthem played in the stadium, the Iranian players did not sing.

There’s been a wave of unprecedented protests in Iran that began in mid-September, following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died after being brutally beaten by Iranian police for not wearing the hijab in accordance with government requirements. It was a spark that ignited a conflagration among Iranians worn out from the theocratic rules over their lives. Many girls and women took off their hijab, often clashing with police. Iranian schoolgirls raised their middle fingers at the country’s leader. Protesters have set fire to the ancestral childhood home of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a founder of the Islamic Republic.



Some 18,000 people have been arrested and detained at protests in more than 100 cities and at least 68 universities. At least 419 people have died. Five protestors have been sentenced to death charged with “spreading corruption on earth” and “enmity against God.”

By remaining silent during the national anthem at the World Cup, the Iranian team appeared to express solidarity — on an international stage — with the protests back home. Emphasis on “appeared to” — more of which in a moment.

Iranian fans carried banners that read: “Women, Life, Freedom.”

As bonkers as it might sound, the hardline Iranian media blamed the team’s defeat against England on “foreign enemies” — the U.S., UK and Israel — for “stirring up protests to throw the national team off its game.”

Some have expressed fear of government reprisal against the Iranian team members when they return home, and there’s no question their position is precarious. The regime has since arrested former national player and outspoken critic Voria Ghafouri.

Indeed, the Iranian World Cup players did sing the national anthem before their match against Wales on Friday, a match they won.

The players would not be the first in the Iranian sports world to “hedge” on apparent statements of protest.

In October, Iranian athlete Elnaz Rekabi competed in South Korea without wearing a mandatory headscarf. She returned to Iran and was greeted by the people as a hero, but she also made an apology of sorts, claiming the incident was an “accident,” that she simply had forgotten to put the headscarf on before competition. She reportedly was put under house arrest.

As Americans know from the #TakeAKnee movement, political statements in a sports context can be fraught — in part because they make the issue so much more visible, impossible to ignore.

In fact, many criticized the Iranian World Cup players before competition began because they had met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi for a send-off and some of them appeared to bow in respect.

Compulsory hijab, “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” are three remaining ideological pillars of Iran’s theocracy — without which the regime has no “oxygen” to survive.

President Raisi tried to spin the blame for the unrest on the U.S. — for “inciting chaos, terror, and destruction” — but that not only failed, it backfired. The protests and anger grew stronger.

Protests are no longer just about the hijab but about decades of pain and suffering that Iranians are simply tired of.

The regime is at a loss to control a movement that is now both international and still growing at home.

Oscar-winning Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi implored people around the world to stand in solidarity with the Iranians, and soon after, women celebrities and politicians across Europe began cutting their hair in solidarity with Iranian women.

Many Iranian children have been killed as the regime attempted to quash the protests, fueling more protests. A teenage girl, Asra Panahi, died after being beaten during a raid by the security forces on her school, prompting the teachers’ union to call on authorities to stop killing innocent protestors. A 9-year-old boy, Kian Pirfalak, was killed on Nov. 16. Security forces quickly tried to portray the murder as the result of a “terror attack,” but the boy’s mother uploaded a video detailing how the security forces fired multiple shots at their car, wounding her husband and killing her son. She condemned the government on Instagram: “Damn you! How could you? He was only 9 … filthy Islamic republic.” At the boy’s funeral, mourners chanted “Death to Khamenei,” referring to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iranian parliamentarians are divided on how to treat the protesters, and the hardliners are now reaching out to reformists seeking help to save Republic.

On Thursday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called the government crackdown in Iran a “full-fledged human rights crisis.”

It is hard to know what will happen next, but one thing already is certain — nothing can stay the same anymore.

The Biden administration said it will “not waste time” on the Iran nuclear deal right now, considering Teheran’s crackdown on protesters and Iranian support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The U.S. and the West should permanently alter interactions with Iranian officials, to include persistent and strong support in defense of human rights.

The Iranian World Cup football team may be singing again, and they may be winning games. Even if they do not win the sport championship, their initial solidarity with fellow citizens scored in a way far more important, one noticed around the globe. And that, almost certainly, was the point.

Sasha Toperich is senior executive vice president of the Transatlantic Leadership Network. From 2013 to 2018, he was a senior fellow and director of the Mediterranean Basin, Middle East and Gulf initiative at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.

Tags FIFA World Cup Hijab Iran Iran protests Iranian government Iranian people Iranian protests Mahsa Amini Politics of Iran ruhollah khomeini

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