While visiting Iran on Thursday, FIFA President Gianni Infantino took the opportunity to comment on the escalating war of words between the Islamic Republic and its Saudi Arabian adversaries, and specifically on the impact that that diplomatic strife has had on the sporting world. As Agence France Presse reported, Infantino called attention to the fact that Saudi soccer clubs have been refusing to compete in Iran since January 2016, coinciding with the suspension of diplomatic relations between the two countries following attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashhad.
Saudi Arabia was joined by several fellow Arab states in the effort to diplomatically isolate Iran, although most of those acts of solidarity were either less thorough at the outset or abandoned over time. But tensions between the Iranians and Saudis remain high, especially against the backdrop of an ongoing proxy war in Yemen. As one modest consequence of these tensions, AFC Championship League competitions involving Iranian soccer clubs continue to be played in Oman. This is a situation that Infantino explicitly criticized during his trip.
“It's very clear that politics should stay out of football and football should stay out of politics,” said the head of soccer’s international governing body in a joint press conference with Iranian Sport Minister Massoud Soltanifar. “There are of course political issues between countries all over the world but this should not have an impact on the football tournament.”
Infantino later accompanied Soltanifar to a match at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium between two Iranian clubs, where his position on the political neutrality of sports was challenged by a number of protesters who had gathered with the particular aim of drawing his attention. FIFA has long been under pressure from women’s rights activists in Iran and throughout the world, in light of its alleged failure to take serious steps toward enforcing international sporting standards on non-discrimination.
Azadi Stadium has been the site of a number of protests and subsequent arrests over the Iranian laws barring women from attending men’s sporting events. The theocracy’s clerical officials maintain that women should be insulated from the swearing and rude behavior on display within male crowds. Gender segregation is also enforced in numerous other areas of Iranian society, where any physical contact between unrelated men and women can be punished with fines and jail time. Mixed gender parties are frequently raided by Iranian security forces, often leading to the rapid implementation of flogging sentences.
Over the years, numerous women have admitted to sneaking into soccer games while disguised as men. Others have tried to gain entry in absence of a disguise, as a form of protest. In 2014, for instance, the 25-year-old Iranian-British law graduate Ghoncheh Ghavami was arrested and held at Evin Prison for several months. The charges against her were dropped the following year under international pressure, although she remained subject to a travel ban which barred her from returning to the UK.
Ghavami’s formal arrest took place days after she had initially been detained for only a period of hours. The legacy of this and other incidents casts doubt upon Iranian officials’ claim that participants in Thursday’s protest had only been detained for the duration of the soccer match. Early reports also claimed that only two women had been detained in this fashion, but the BBC later found that at least 35 women were apprehended outside the stadium after they responded to calls to action on social media.
Those protests began in late December when 31-year-old Vida Movahed climbed onto a public utility box to remove her veil and hold it over her head on the end of a stick. Since then, dozens of women and several men have staged similar demonstrations, leading to predictable backlash from the clerical regime. The Daily Mail reported this week that two of the latest arrestees have been threatened with prison sentences of up to 10 years on charges of “inciting people to immorality and prostitution.” Nearly all of them have reportedly been beaten while in detention.
The Daily Mail also called attention to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s previous commentary on the forced veiling issue. It noted that he “came to power in 2013 promising a more moderate stance” and “said it is not the job of police to enforce religious rules.” But the same reported contrasted this with the fact that officials announced in 2016 that they would be dramatically increasing the deployment of the country’s undercover morality police to report on instance of “bad hijab” and other violations of religious strictures.
Such contrast between Rouhani’s public statements and the government’s actual behavior has also been on display in a number of other areas. During his campaign in 2013 and again in his reelection campaign last year, Rouhani promised to work toward the release of the Green Movement leaders who have been extrajudicial under house arrest since 2011. But after securing a second term, he quickly turned away from these promises, publicly declaring that the issue’s resolution remained in the hands of hardline authorities. Then, when mass protests broke out across Iran in December, many participants expressed regret for prior support of Rouhani due to the lack of reform during his tenure.
The apparent evaporation of faith in Rouhani’s reform agenda proved to be relevant to Infantino’s commentary on politics and sport, insofar as the FIFA head cited the Iranian president’s promises as a reason for the international community to be patient and utilize a strategy of dialogue instead of pressure to resolve the issue. “I was promised that women in Iran will have access to football stadiums soon,” Infantino said, adding that Rouhani claimed “these things take a bit of time” in countries like Iran.
Reuters noted that in criticizing Infantino for his relative inattention to the issue, the Iranian activist group OpenStadiums pointed out that Rouhani had made identical promises to the previous FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, in 2013.
While criticism from such groups surrounded Infantino during his visit, at least one Iranian journalist confronted him with the issue more directly, posing a question about it to Soltanifar, the Iranian sport minister, while Infantino was seated next to him. According to the BBC, after the reporter asked when the ban on women might be lifted, the television broadcast was immediately muted and the interview was taken off the air. While this reaction demonstrates authorities’ efforts to keep tight control over the public dialogue, the actions of that interviewer and the various protesters suggest that these efforts are having limited effects.
In fact, public defiance of Tehran’s restrictions have touched upon other areas of the sporting world recently, further calling into question the viability of Infantino’s advice to keep politics and sports separate where Iran is concerned. RT reported on Thursday that the head of Iran’s wrestling federation, Rasoul Khadem, had resigned over the government’s policy of forcing Iranian athletes to either throw their matches or feign injury in order to avoid competing against Israeli opponents.
The resignation comes just two months after Khadem was reelected to his position, and the RT report declared that it had “immediate repercussions,” with the heads of Iranian freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling also leaving their posts in an expression of solidarity.