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Iran's Players Face Conflicting Pressures Before World Cup Showdown with US

Iran fans hold a banner reading 'Woman life freedom' inside the stadium during the Group B match between England and Iran at Khalifa International Stadium, Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 21, 2022.
Iran fans hold a banner reading 'Woman life freedom' inside the stadium during the Group B match between England and Iran at Khalifa International Stadium, Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 21, 2022.

The Iranian men's football team takes on the United States in a pivotal World Cup match Tuesday, with Iran's players facing conflicting pressures on their behavior from their government and from Iranians supporting a nationwide protest movement.

The Iranian and U.S. teams enter their final first round match with the U.S. needing a win to advance to round two and Iran needing to avoid defeat to have a chance of doing the same.

One source of pressure on the Iranian players is the Islamic republic's clerical leaders, who have publicly denounced Iranian athletes for refusing to sing the national anthem at international competitions in solidarity with protesters in recent weeks. Iranian authorities also have detained two former members of the men's football team for speaking out in support of the protests.

Another source of pressure is antigovernment activists in Iran and in the Iranian diaspora who have called on current members of the team to show more support for protests demanding an end to Islamist rule. Those Iranians also have reacted angrily to what they see as the team's failure to do so.

Iranian antigovernment activists were especially upset when the team met President Ebrahim Raisi before leaving Iran for the tournament in Qatar.

Iran's players did not sing the Islamic republic's anthem at the start of their first World Cup match against England last week, in an apparent gesture of solidarity with the protesters. They went on to lose the match 6-2, one of the team's worst defeats ever.

But the Iranian players reversed course and sang the national anthem before kicking off their next first-round match against Wales, whom they defeated 2-0. The players' singing of the anthem and goal celebrations on the field further antagonized Iranians who see the team as a tool of an oppressive government.

Iran's protest movement erupted in September in response to the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman arrested that month by the so-called morality police for allegedly not wearing her hijab in accordance with strict Islamic dress codes. Rights groups say the mostly peaceful protests demanding respect for women's rights and freedom from Islamist rule have been met with a brutal government crackdown that has killed hundreds of people and led to thousands of arrests.

After Iran's victory over Wales, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei thanked the team for its performance. Uninformed Iranian security personnel, whom the government has used to violently suppress the protests, also were seen celebrating the win in the streets, in images criticized by Iranian social media users who oppose the government.

A VOA Persian reporter who attended Iran's England match said the Iranian fans in the stadium were mostly Iranian government supporters who received free match tickets to put on a strong show of support for the team for the Iranian state TV audience watching back home.

But the reporter said several thousand Iranians opposed to the government managed to enter the Doha stadium for the England match and some engaged in acts of protest such as booing the Islamic republic's anthem and wearing shirts and holding signs with protest slogans. Other activists who had tried to enter the stadium with similar shirts, signs or flags of Iran's pre-1979 monarchy were blocked by security agents.

In a report published Sunday, Iranian state news agency IRNA quoted the governor of southern Iran's Bushehr province Ahmad Mohammadizadeh as saying Iran's armed forces had used their powers to prevent the World Cup from becoming a "stage" for antigovernment "propaganda."

Mohammadizadeh did not elaborate on what involvement Iranian military personnel have had in the administration of the tournament hosted by Qatar, a regional Iranian ally. The IRNA report made no mention of the antigovernment activists who managed to stage protests inside and outside the Qatari stadiums where Iran's team has competed.

One protest that drew attention on social media was by Canada-based Iranian diaspora activist Hila Yadegar, who brought the lion and sun flag of Iran's former monarchy into the stadium for the England match and paraded it in the stands.

U.S.-based exiled Iranian crown prince Reza Pahlavi tweeted a video of Yadegar's protest and wrote: "This is the real Iran. Not the forcibly veiled women and regime-sponsored supporters the Qatari-controlled broadcasters want you to see."

Yadegar told VOA Persian that a man wearing a shirt with Qatari and Iranian insignias approached her in the stands and asked her to show an identification card. She said she saw no reason to comply with a demand from an Islamic republic agent in Qatar.

Yadegar also posted a video on Twitter of what she said were several Qatari security agents escorting her out of the Khalifa International Stadium for wearing a T-shirt with the “Women. Life. Freedom” protest slogan.

The VOA Persian reporter asked Qatari authorities including the police and the interior ministry to comment on complaints by some Iranian spectators of mistreatment at the stadiums by security agents and pro-Iranian government fans. There was no response.

One video posted on social media showed an Iranian man wearing a white shirt with a lion and sun flag being wrestled to the ground by security agents outside the stadium hosting Friday's Iran-Wales match.

The reporter also requested an interview with a representative of FIFA, football's international governing body, to discuss the incidents in which some Iranians said they were mistreated. FIFA initially agreed to an interview but later declined and instead sent VOA information about whom people can contact if they want to complain about their experience at the World Cup.

This article originated in VOA's Persian service. Hossein Ghazanfari reported from Washington and Ali Emadi reported from Qatar.

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