World Cup 218

A history of human rights abuses in Iran, an autocratic Islamic extremist government, and far from positive diplomatic relations – is this the type of country that should be getting a chance to play at the World Cup?

Don’t get me wrong, I love soccer as much as anyone, and there’s something uniquely fulfilling about seeing your home country succeed on the world stage at something other than being a nuclear threat. And I know this is going to get a lot of my Iranian friends and family (and readers) angry, so just bare with me through the article. I like that I’m able to cheer for Iran, given it’s one of the very, very, few opportunities we expats get to be patriotic. But even as I found myself cheering through Morocco’s own goal in the opening game on Friday, I had to take a moment to think about what was wrong with the picture.

One glaring detail that the commentators and general sports community seem to glide over – that Iran’s women are banned from even watching soccer games in stadiums in Iran, let alone to play freely. There just seems to be a mild tinge of irony in the reality that women have to disguise themselves as men to simply watch a game, while the men’s team gets the grandeur of playing on the international stage. This aside from the thousands of other terrible things I could list wrong with Iran, things I’m sure would be far from the frontline of any ESPN report on the game or the team’s journey to the World Cup stage.

The World Cup is Only the Tip of the Iceberg

Thinking this through brought me to a bigger problem I see far too commonly among Iranian immigrants: misguidedly sympathizing with the Iranian government rather than the Iranian people. There is, without a doubt, an important distinction to be made. Iran, the government, is an extremist Islamic autocracy with little regard for human life, let alone human rights. Iran, the people, are a community rich with culture, talents, kindness, and deserve much better than the filthy government that rules them.

I remember very distinctly when Trump decided to pull out of the Iran deal and reinstate economic sanctions. All over my Facebook feed, I saw outcry, a lot of which was fully justified. This was not a wise diplomatic decision in more than one way. But a lot of the outcry, was, in my opinion, greatly misguided. I saw people calling for Iran to retaliate, that this was an attack on the country and that it would not go unanswered. What I don’t understand is, for one, yes, this was an attack on the country, but at the government, not at the people.

Economic sanctions are not meant to hurt the Iranian public. They are a diplomatic weapon against the government. And I know what a lot of people are thinking, that they might be ‘intended’ to hurt the government, but end up impacting the people the most.

To this, I say, yes of course, on paper, that makes sense. But let’s have a quick look at what happened to the Iranian economy when the sanctions were lifted in 2015. Iran regained access to their frozen assets overseas, roughly $100 billion worth. This surely would have stimulated the economy, no? Reduced the rates of poverty and hunger and made food affordable? Let’s have a look at what really happened.

If lifted sanctions were to benefit the Iranian people, how come unemployment rates increased, among every single demographic, between 2014 and 2016? Why did the price of basic food commodities rise, at times as much as forty percent? Why did thousands of protesters take to the streets, over what mainstream media adeptly called ‘economic discontent’?  Surely all those freed assets and increases in the GDP would have benefited the people, correct? Well, the sad reality is, an extremist autocracy does not care about its people. It cares about staying in power. You stay in power by giving money to the elites keeping you in power, not to the hardworking civilians fighting to keep food on the table. Not to mention that Iran remains the “foremost state sponsor of terrorism”, and seems to prefer giving money to terrorist organizations over its own people.

Let me clarify, Iranians have every right to be angry with the sanctions. Beyond a doubt. But the danger falls in where this anger is directed. At the West and the U.S. for intervening and messing things up? Fair, to a degree, but what does that anger get us? How about directing the anger at the ruthless regime that has been senselessly prosecuting and killing its own people since coming into power 40 years ago? Where does that anger get us? Maybe just more protests. More protests that are shut down in a few weeks because the government has guns and all the people have is will. Being disappointed in the success of civil strife is also fair, but giving up on it is only letting the regime win.

Leave Sports Out of Politics, or Bring Sports into Politics?

I guess the better question here is, is Iran playing in the World Cup a better victory for the people or the government? An obvious two ways of looking at this. For one, you have people cheering with all their heart for a country that’s got very little to cheer for. You see a positive representation of all the things Iranians have to offer. On the other hand, you see a big win for the Islamic Republic. Using sports as a tactic of internationally proving your autocracy’s success is nothing new. Iran making the World Cup can easily be seen as a ‘give us all the sanctions you want, we’re still doing fine’, from the Islamic Republic.

So what happens if the tables were turned? If Iran was banned from the World Cup on grounds of its atrocious human rights abuses and lack of respect for its own people? You would have a massive outcry from the Iranian public, without a doubt. But like I mentioned earlier, anger can be a powerful weapon if directed at the right sources. And, better yet, what would this look like for the Islamic Republic? Another huge blow to their ‘success’ and more anger directed at them from their own people. You can only kill off protests for so long, the people’s will is stronger than the government’s efforts to create fear.

I’d also see this as a strong message worldwide, that if you don’t respect your own people, you won’t get a chance to participate in the wonderful spectacle that is international sporting events. I’m far from the first person to suggest that countries with a history of human rights abuses should be banned from international sporting events, but I do think it’s a valuable argument and something to consider if the Iranian regime shows no sign of loosening its discriminatory laws.

In the meantime, I’ll be cheering along Iran in the World Cup, I’ll be happy that Iranians are happy, but I won’t be turning a blind eye to all the terrible crimes the Islamic regime is guilty of. I also won’t be falling into the ‘sports unites us’ wishful mentality, because it cannot unite us if half of us are banned from even being in the arena.