Iran and its soccer team are in the international spotlight ahead of World Cup soccer games this month against Western rivals England, Wales and the U.S., with Tehran’s brutal crackdown on domestic protests sparking blowback abroad and potentially fueling tension between its athletes and government leaders at home.
Iran is set to face England in a World Cup group stage match Monday, a contest that comes as Britain, the U.S. and other major global players have all but abandoned diplomatic talks with Tehran to limit the Islamic republic’s nuclear program. Those talks have fallen apart partly because of Iran’s direct military support of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
From Iran’s perspective, there are perhaps more pressing concerns, ones that could bring to the forefront deep divisions within Iranian society.
Iranian soccer legend Ali Daei said earlier this week he won’t travel to Qatar for Iran’s World Cup games, citing his desire to stand in solidarity with Iranian protesters who have spent two months demonstrating against their government.
The protests began in September following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody of the country’s morality police. She was arrested for allegedly wearing her hijab too loosely in an incident that struck a nerve across Iranian society and has led to a near-unprecedented outcry against the country’s strict version of Islamic law.
Iranian dissident groups say at least 560 protesters have been killed while thousands more have been arrested.
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Mr. Daei explained his decision in an Instagram post on Monday, saying he wanted to remain “in my homeland and express my sympathy with all the families who have lost loved ones these days.”
In its games vs. England on Monday, viewers will see whether Iranian players signal protests. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi seemed to warn players against such displays before they left for Qatar Sunday night.
“Some don’t want to see the success and victory of Iranian youth and wish to disturb your focus. Be very vigilant on this,” he told the players, as quoted by Al-Jazeera.
Iran, England, the U.S. and Wales make up the World Cup’s Group B. After the England game, Iran will face Wales on Nov. 25 before its high-profile showdown with the U.S. on Nov. 29.
Those matches will carry major geopolitical symbolism. Western efforts to revive the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — which limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for economic sanctions relief — have fallen apart amid Iran’s crackdown on protesters and its backing of Russia. On the latter point, Western officials say Russia is increasingly relying on Iranian-made drones to wage a terror campaign against Ukraine by targeting energy and clean-water systems ahead of the winter season.
Iran has denied directly helping the Russian war effort despite mounting evidence to the contrary, including what U.S. officials say is the presence of Iranian military personnel on the ground in Crimea assisting Russian fighters.
Meanwhile, as the World Cup plays out, the United Nations Human Rights Council on Nov. 24 is expected to hold a special session to discuss Iran’s domestic treatment of protesters. That meeting could put the global focus on Iran’s human rights record ahead of its soccer showdown with the U.S.
“The U.N. Human Rights Council will hold an urgently warranted special session to address the worsening human rights condition in Iran, especially as it relates to women, girls and children. The U.S. strongly supports this call for a special session,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters Wednesday. “And the world is watching in horror as the Iranian regime continues to violently crackdown on peaceful protesters by its citizens.”
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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