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Iranian soccer’s curse: Politics

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Image source: MEHR News Agency

Iran recently scored not one but two soccer successes.

Fans celebrated after the country’s national team qualified for the third consecutive time for the World Cup after beating Iraq 1:0 last week.

It wasn’t just men celebrating. It was men and women mingling freely in a Tehran square.

That was after men and women, albeit segregated, egged on their team in Tehran’s Azadi or Freedom Stadium.

Although banned from attending men’s domestic soccer matches, the presence of women for an international qualifier was evidence that some kinds of pressure on Iran work, at least when the pressure is aligned with popular domestic demands.

That all sounds like good news. But there is bad news too, and that may be more consequential and contain a cautionary note for Iranian sports and sports globally, particularly in lands governed by autocrats and authoritarians.

For Iran, the bad news was the decision last month by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to expel from the 2022 Asian Champions League, the continent’s major club tournament, three of Iran’s top clubs, Persepolis FC, Esteghlal FC, and Gol Gohar Sirjan FC. Persepolis and Esteghlal long ranked among Asia’s most popular squads.

The AFC penalized the clubs, two of which are owned by the Iranian youth and sports ministry, for failing to meet the group’s managerial and infrastructural standards and its ownership rules.

That is true not just for Persepolis, Esteghlal and Gol Gohar Sirjan. Few, if any, Iranian clubs, many of which are state-owned with representatives of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) occupying board seats, meet the AFC’s criteria.

To meet AFC standards, Iranian clubs would have to develop youth academies, promote women’s soccer, and establish marketing departments to help them become commercially sustainable.

Inevitably, that would require privatization, a political risk that so far has been one step too far for Iranian leaders.

Too often, soccer in Iran, as elsewhere in the Middle East, a football-crazy part of the world, has been a catalyst for the venting of pent-up anger and frustration.

Stadiums like Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) Stadium and Tabriz’s Yadegar-e-Imam or Sahand Stadium have at times turned from offering Karl Marx’s proverbial opium to the people into venues of protest.

As a result, soccer, one of the few things that evoke emotions as deep-seated as religion does, is a sport authoritarian leaders feel they have to control.

Credibly maintaining that control is where the rub is. Harsh US sanctions make it difficult for the government to invest in clubs whose debt burden makes them difficult to privatize even if the regime were willing to take the political risk of relinquishing control.

Conservative Iranian member of parliament Ahmad Rastineh said as much recently when he insisted that it would be “impossible” to grant independence to the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the country’s governing soccer body.

Mr. Rastineh was responding to the AFC’s reported demands that Iran starts privatizing clubs, lift the ban on women attending domestic soccer matches, and end government interference in the sport.

The AFC demands indicate how dire the situation in Iran is. The AFC, like world soccer body FIFA, has long been a de facto pillar of support for Middle Eastern autocracy by acquiescing in political interference across the region.

The AFC’s demands appear to have encouraged critics of government control to come out of the woodwork.

“The whole problem today is the presence of politics in football,” said Dariush Mostafavi, who was chairman of the Iranian football federation in the 1990s. Mr. Mostafavi was speaking on state television.

Mr. Mostafavi’s frustrations appear to be shared by many in soccer as well as more implicitly by the federation’s current leadership.

“If the structure of football improved, then Iran would be in the top 10 in the world, for sure,” said Afshin Ghotbi, an Iranian-American coach who has worked with Persepolis as well as Iran’s national team. “The current generation of players is the best yet, but they don’t have the atmosphere in Iran to develop themselves as much as they could.”

In a remarkable move, the Iranian federation’s secretary-general, Hassan Kamranifar, came out swinging in support of Mehdi Mahdavikia, a former national team captain, who caused a stir for wearing a jersey featuring the flags of all FIFA member countries, including Israel, during a friendly game in Qatar. Iranian athletes have in the past been sanctioned for refusing to compete against Israelis in international events in violation of globally accepted sports governance rules.

Mr. Mahdavikia “is one of the greats of Iranian football” and “a symbol of pride for the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Mr. Kamranifar said in a statement on the federation’s website.

The expulsion of the Iranian clubs and the politics of Iranian soccer is the sharp edge of what is a global rather than a local problem: the incestuous and inseparable relationship between sports and politics and the insistence of international sports governors on maintaining the fiction that there is a Chinese wall between the two.

The refusal to acknowledge the relationship and establish an oversight regime that would properly govern it serves the purposes of autocratic governments and leaders of international sports associations.

The criticism expressed by the Iranian football association and Mr. Mostafavi fits an emerging trend among some athletes and some club managers to stand up for various rights, including those of LGBT and labour in Qatar, this year’s World Cup hosts.

Seven-time Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton wore a helmet featuring the colours of the LGBTI Pride Progress Flag during the recent Grand Prix races in Qatar and Saudi Arabia as a challenge to the two Gulf states’ refusal to recognise the rights of sexual minorities.

Similarly, the Danish Football Union (DBU), Denmark’s governing soccer body, announced that its commercial sponsors had agreed to surrender space on training kits to allow for messaging critical of Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers.

The union said it would also minimize the number of trips to Qatar by the Danish team that has already qualified for the 2022 World Cup to avoid commercial activities that promote the World Cup hosts’ events.

Pressured by human rights groups and trade unions, Qatar has significantly improved its labour regime since the 2010 awarding by FIFA of its 2022 World Cup hosting rights. However, many argue that Qatar needs to ensure that adopted reforms are properly implemented.

Unlike the issue of LGBT rights that has sparked fierce debate in the Gulf, the AFC’s demands appear to resonate with Iranians.

Said Iranian sports journalist: Behnam Jafarzadeh: “Most people agree with the AFC’s decision and say they wish they had done this earlier.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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‘Protracted political impasse’ further polarizing Libya

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Libya continues to struggle to recover from conflict and insecurity. UNOCHA/Giles Clarke

Despite UN efforts, political, economic and security deadlock continues in Libya, the UN political affairs chief told the Security Council on Thursday, adding that human rights there have also deteriorated.

“We are concerned that the protracted political impasse is having an increasingly negative impact on security,” said Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo.

“A coordinated and constructive effort is required to prevent further polarization and end the political stalemate.”

Commendable progress

Last week, UN Special Advisor Stephanie Williams convened a second round of consultations of the Joint Committee of the House of Representatives and High State Council, in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, reviewing a reformed constitution for a democratic way forward for the country, the 2017 Constitutional Draft.

The delegations reached agreement in several areas, including basic rights and freedoms; the structure and powers of a two-tier new parliament; and the prerogatives of the President and Prime Minister.

Under UN auspices, members will reconvene on 11 June for a final round to reach consensus on finalizing constitutional arrangements to hold key national elections – delayed from last December – as soon as possible.

The Special Adviser also met Presidency Council members, who expressed their intention to continue working on a national reconciliation process with UN and African Union support.

‘Fragile’ security

While the 2020 ceasefire continues to hold, Ms. DiCarlo stated that the security situation “remains fragile”.

She drew attention to clashes in the capital on 17 May, following the recent political crisis which began in March, which saw the eastern parliament select a new government. The incumbent UN and internationally-backed Prime Minister however, refused to stand aside.

The parliamentary choice for the top job, Fathi Bashagha, entered Tripoli backed by armed groups, leading to skirmishes with supporters of incumbent Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah.

One militant died, a policeman was injured and several buildings were damaged.

Following mediation by local actors and outreach by military representatives, from the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission (JMC), Mr. Bashagha was escorted out of Tripoli.

“While fighting has ceased, the situation remains tense. Tripoli-based armed groups supporting either Mr. Dbeibah or Mr. Bashagha remain in a state of high alert,” the political chief said.

Positive note

She reported that the JMC’s eastern and western delegations met on Monday and Tuesday in Spain for the first time since the end of February.

After discussions with the 5+5 Commission, the Special Adviser said that the members expressed their readiness to resume negotiations over the Ceasefire Agreement implementation.

Meanwhile, the reluctance of the Government of National Unity (GNU) to pay the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) salaries for the first quarter of this year – the military wing of the rival eastern administration – triggered the closure of several oil fields and ports, “cutting the country’s daily oil output in half,” Ms DiCarlo told ambassadors.

However, following Special Adviser Williams’ intercession with the GNU, the outstanding salaries were paid. Mr. Dbeibah confirmed that he would authorize regular monthly payments.

“Oil production, however, has yet to return to normal,” she added.

Rights concerns

The human rights situation in Libya remains a source of great concern, Ms. DiCarlo told the Council, elaborating on a new wave of youth arrests for alleged crimes against “Libyan culture and values”.

And restrictions persist on the work of civil society organisations, including women’s rights groups accused of violating “the principles and values of Libyan society.”

Special Adviser Williams visited mass graves in Tarhouna and met with families of victims who disappeared between 2012 and 2020.

“The perpetrators of these horrific crimes have yet to be brought to justice,” said Ms. DiCarlo, shining a light on the “highly precarious” situation of internally displaced people.

Equally worrying are the continued campaigns of mass arrests and detention – in inhumane conditions – of undocumented foreign nationals and migrants in the western region.

Resolving differences

“It is imperative that the ceasefire in Libya be maintained, calm preserved and any steps that could result in renewed violence be avoided,” the political chief underscored.

She stressed the need for all parties to uphold their commitment to “the peaceful resolution of political differences” and for political and security actors to “look beyond their personal interests and continue to engage constructively” in upcoming talks supporting the electoral/constitutional track.

“This is the only way to fulfil the aspirations of the Libyan people to select their representatives through the ballot box,” Ms. DiCarlo said, maintaining that the UN would “spare no effort” to support Libyans in building “a stable and peaceful country.”

Staunch allies

The Under-Secretary-General flagged the importance of the Council’s support, which she described as “invaluable in keeping a political process alive”.

Meanwhile, a coordinated and constructive effort is required to prevent further polarization and end the political stalemate.

During a time of “aggravated global turmoil,” she upheld that unity in the Council and the international unity on peace in Libya is “especially important”.

“It is what Libyans deserve. It is what the world needs,” concluded Ms. DiCarlo.

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Israel admits involvement in the killing of an Iranian army officer

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Image credit: MEHR News Agency

Col. Sayad Khodayee, 50, was fatally shot outside his home in Tehran on Sunday when two gunmen on motorcycles approached his car and fired five bullets into it, according to state media. Iran has blamed Israel for the killing, which bore the hallmarks of other Israeli targeted killings of Iranians in a shadow war that has been playing out for years on land, sea, air, and cyberspace.

Although a spokeswoman for the Israeli prime minister declined to comment on the killing. But according to an intelligence official briefed on the communications, Israel has informed American officials that it was behind the killing.

At the funeral in Tehran for a colonel in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, thousands of mourners packed the streets around the cemetery chanting “Death to Israel” and calling for revenge for his killing.

“We will make the enemy regret this and none of the enemy’s evil actions will go unanswered,” Gen. Hossein Salami, the commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards, said in a speech on Monday. A member of Iran’s National Security Council, Majid Mirahmadi, said the killing was “definitely the work of Israel,” and warned that harsh revenge would follow, according to Iranian media.

The United States has designated the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group unilaterally — a decision that has been a sticking point in the negotiations with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran has demanded that the designation be removed as a condition for restoring the deal, but the United States has refused, leaving the negotiations frozen. The Nuclear deal was terminated by President Trump, but President Joe Bidden wanted to resume the deal and is in communication with Iran for restoration. Definitely, Iran had bitter experiences and concerns about the sincerity of Washington. It wanted safeguards and certain guarantees. Iran is willing to such a nuclear deal, which protects the interest of both sides, any unilateral deal may not be accepted by Tehran.

Israel is openly opposed to the nuclear deal. In fact, President Trump, after meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, took the unpopular decision of terminating the deal unilaterally. Some Iranian analysts close to the government said the attack was aimed at derailing the nuclear talks at a delicate point and undermining any possibility that Iran and the United States might reach a consensus over the issue of the Guards.

However, the Israelis told the Americans the killing was meant as a warning to Iran to halt the operations of a covert group within the Quds Force known as Unit 840, according to the intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information. Whereas, Iran has portrayed the colonel as a martyred hero who joined the Revolutionary Guards as a teenager, volunteered as a soldier in the Iran-Iraq war, and went on to play a prominent role in the Quds force fighting the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria. The people of Iran are proud of his contributions.

What so ever is the justification presented by Israel, is a clear violation of international laws and practices. It has violated the UN charter and all norms of the civilized world. It might bear consequences, and Iran’s warning to retaliate is legitimate as a victim has not been provided justice yet. The aggressor needs to be taught a bitter lesson to avoid any future misadventure.

It has created new tension in the region and many speculations are roaming in the middle-east. Iran is a sovereign state and has the legitimate right to protect its safety, security, and vital interests. Iran has the capability to react, but, the visionary leadership in Tehran, might be waiting for an appropriate time, and opportunity. Iran does not want to escalate further and trying to minimize the existing tension, while committed to safeguarding its sovereignty and interests.

As matter of fact, Israel is the root cause of all problems in the Middle East and since its inception is over-engaged creating problems one after another. It is a defaulter of the UN and denied the implementation of several resolutions passed by the UNSC. It strongly urged that the UN and the International community must keep eye on Israeli activities and atrocities that are spoiling the peace and security of the whole region.

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Playing games in NATO, Turkey eyes its role in a new world order

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erdogan

NATO’s spat over Turkish opposition to Swedish and Finnish membership is about more than expanding the North Atlantic military alliance. It’s as much about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s immediate political goals as Turkey’s positioning itself in a new 21st-century world order.

On its surface, the spat is about Turkish efforts to hinder support for Kurdish ethnic, cultural, and national aspirations in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq and a crackdown on alleged supporters of a preacher who lives in exile in the United States. Turkey accuses the preacher, Fethullah Gulen, of instigating a failed military coup in 2016.

The spat may also be a play by NATO’s second-largest standing military to regain access to US arms sales, particularly upgrades for Turkey’s aging fleet of F-16 fighter jets as well as more advanced newer models of the F-16 and the top-of-the-line F-35.

Finally, playing the Kurdish card benefits Mr. Erdogan domestically, potentially at a time that the Turkish economy is in the doldrums with a 70 per cent inflation rate.

“Erdogan always benefits politically when he takes on the Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK) and groups linked to it, like the YPG in Syria… In fact, attacking the PKK and the YPG is a two-for-one. Erdogan is seen to take on genuine terrorists and separatists, and at the same time, he gets to take a swipe at the United States, which taps into the vast reservoir of anti-Americanism in Turkey,” said Middle East scholar Steven A. Cook.

While important issues in and of themselves, they are also likely to influence where Turkey will rank as the world moves towards a bi-polar or multi-polar power structure.

The battle over perceived Scandinavian, and mainly, Swedish support for Kurdish aspirations involves the degree to which the United States and Europe will continue to kick the can down on the road of what constitutes yet another Middle Eastern powder keg.

Mr. Erdogan announced this week that Turkey would soon launch a new military incursion against US-backed Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria. Mr. Erdogan said the operation would extend the Turkish armed forces’ areas of control in Syria to a 30-kilometer swath of land along the two countries’ shared border.

“The main target of these operations will be areas which are centers of attacks to our country and safe zones,” the Turkish president said.

Turkey asserts that the US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian militia that helped defeat the Islamic State, is an extension of the PKK. The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey, home to some 16 million Kurds. Turkey, the United States, and the European Union have designated the PKK as a terrorist organisation.

Mr. Erdogan charges that Sweden and Finland give the PKK sanctuary and is demanding that the two countries extradite the group’s operatives. Turkey has not officially released the names of 33 people it wants to see extradited, but some were reported in Turkish media close to the government.

Swedish media reported that a physician allegedly on the list had died seven years ago and was not known to have had links to the PKK. Another person named was not resident in Sweden, while at least one other is a Swedish national.

Swedish and Finnish officials were in Ankara this week to discuss Turkey’s objections. Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson insisted as the officials headed for the Turkish capital that “we do not send money or weapons to terrorist organizations.”

Conveniently, pro-government media reported the day the officials arrived that Turkish forces found Swedish anti-tank weapons in a cave in northern Iraq used by the PKK. Turkey recently launched Operation Claw Lock against PKK positions in the region.

Mr. Erdogan’s military plans complicate Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO. The two Nordic states slapped an arms embargo on Ankara after its initial incursion into Syria in 2019. The Turkish leader has demanded the lifting of the embargo as part of any deal on Swedish and Finnish NATO membership.

A renewed incursion that would cement Turkey’s three-year-old military presence in Syria could also throw a monkey wrench into improving relations with the United States due to Turkish support for Ukraine and efforts to mediate an end to the crisis sparked by the Russian invasion.

Turkey slowed its initial incursion into Syria after then US President Donald J. Trump threatened to “destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy.

The State Department warned this week that a renewed incursion would “undermine regional stability.”

Revived US arms sales would go a long way to cement improved relations and downplay the significance of Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile system, even if Turkey’s opposition to Scandinavian membership will have a lingering effect on trust. The United States expelled Turkey from its F-35 program in response to the acquisition.

This week, Mr. Erdogan appeared to widen the dispute in NATO after Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis lobbied the US Congress against military sales to Turkey. “Mitsotakis no longer exists for me. I will never agree to meet him,” Mr. Erdogan said. He said that Mr. Mitostakis’ lobbying violated an agreement between the two men “not to involve third countries in our bilateral issues.”

The US arms sales would also impact Turkish Russian relations, even if Turkey, in contrast to most NATO members, will continue seeking to balance its relationships and avoid an open rift with Moscow or Washington.

“Russia’s geopolitical revisionism is set to drive Turkey and the West relatively closer together in matters geopolitical and strategic, provided that Turkey’s current blockage of Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership bid is resolved in the not too distant future,” said Turkey scholar Galip Dalay.

Turkey’s NATO gamble is a game of high-stakes poker, given that Russia is as much a partner of Turkey as it is a threat.

NATO is Turkey’s ultimate shield against Russian civilizationalist expansionism. Russian support in 2008 for irredentist regions of Georgia and annexation of Crimea in 2014 created a buffer between Turkey and Ukraine and complicated arrangements between Turkey and Russia in the Black Sea.

Nevertheless, Mr. Erdogan risks fueling a debate about Turkey’s membership in NATO, much like Prime Minister Victor Orban’s opposition to a European embargo of Russian energy has raised questions about Hungary’s place in the EU.

“Does Erdogan’s Turkey Belong in NATO?” asked former US vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman and Mark D. Wallace, a former senator, in an oped in The Wall Street Journal. Unlike Finland and Sweden, the two men noted that Turkey would not meet NATO’s democracy requirements if it were applying for membership today.

“Turkey is a member of NATO, but under Mr. Erdogan, it no longer subscribes to the values that underpin this great alliance. Article 13 of the NATO charter provides a mechanism for members to withdraw. Perhaps it is time to amend Article 13 to establish a procedure for the expulsion of a member nation,” Messrs. Lieberman and Wallace wrote.

The two men implicitly argued that turning the tables on Turkey would force the complicated NATO member back into line.

Adding to that, prominent Turkish journalist and analyst Cengiz Candar cautioned that “giving into Ankara’s demands amounts to letting an autocrat design the security architecture of Europe and shape the future of the Western system.”

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