The last World Cup clash between the United States and Iran 24 years ago is considered one of the most politically charged matches in soccer history.
This time, the political overtones are just as strong and relations perhaps even more fraught as the U.S. and Iran face off once again on Tuesday in Qatar.
Iran’s nationwide protests, its expanding nuclear program and regional and international attacks linked back to Tehran have pushed the match beyond the stadium and into geopolitics.
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No matter the outcome, tensions are likely only to worsen in the coming months.
When relations soured between the U.S. and Iran depends on who you ask. Iranians point to the 1953 CIA-backed coup that cemented Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s power. Americans remember the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover and 444-day hostage crisis during the Iranian Revolution.
In soccer, however, the timeline is much simpler as this will be only the second time Iran and the U.S. have played each other in the World Cup.
The last time was at the 1998 tournament in France – a totally different time in the Islamic Republic. Iran won 2-1 in Lyon, a low point for the U.S. men’s team as Iranians celebrated in Tehran.
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At the time, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised the Iranian team, saying “the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat.”
But off the pitch, Iran’s then-president, Mohammad Khatami, sought to improve ties to the West and the wider world. Inside Iran, Khatami pushed so-called “reformist” policies, seeking to liberalize aspects of its theocracy while maintaining its structure with a supreme leader at the top.
U.S. President Bill Clinton and his administration hoped Khatami’s election could be part of a thaw.
The two teams posed for a joint photograph, and the Iranian players handed white flowers to their American opponents. The U.S. gave the Iranians U.S. Soccer Federation pennants. They even exchanged jerseys, though the Iranians didn’t put them on. They later played a friendly in Pasadena, California, as well.
Fast-forward 24 years later, and relations are perhaps more tense than they’ve ever been.
Iran is now governed entirely by hard-liners after the election of President Ebrahim Raisi, a protege of Khamenei, who took part in the 1988 mass execution of thousands of political prisoners at the end of the Iran-Iraq war.
Following the collapse of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, sparked by President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the accord, Tehran is now enriching uranium to 60% purity _ a short, technical step from weapons-grade levels. Non-proliferation experts warn the Islamic Republic already has enough uranium to build at least one nuclear bomb.
A shadow war of drone strikes, targeted killings and sabotage has been shaking the wider Middle East for years amid the deal’s collapse. Meanwhile, Russia pounds civilian areas and power infrastructure in Ukraine with Iranian-made drones.
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For two months, Iran has been convulsed by the mass protests that followed the Sept. 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who had been earlier detained by the country’s morality police. The protests have seen at least 451 people killed since they started, as well as over 18,000 arrested, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, an advocacy group following the demonstrations.
At the World Cup in Qatar, Iran’s 2-0 win against Wales provided a brief moment of good news for hard-liners. After the match, riot police in Tehran waved Iranian flags in the street, something that angered demonstrators. Khamenei himself acknowledged the win “stirred joy in the country.”
However, the supreme leader warned that “when the World Cup is taking place, all eyes are on it. The opponent typically takes advantage of this lax moment to act.”
As the demonstrations intensified, Iran has alleged without providing evidence that its enemies abroad, including the U.S., are fomenting the unrest. At a World Cup where organizers hoped to divorce politics from the pitch, those tensions have bled out around the stadiums with pro- and anti-government demonstrators shouting at each other.
Iranian authorities said Tuesday that two former members of the national soccer team arrested this month in connection with nationwide protests have been released on bail.
The announcement came hours before Iran was set to play the U.S. at the World Cup in a match that authorities are heavily promoting as they grapple with nationwide protests that are well into their third month.
Parviz Boroumand, a retired goalkeeper, was arrested nearly two weeks ago on charges of participating in protests in the capital, Tehran, and was accused of damaging property. Voria Ghafouri was arrested last week for “insulting the national soccer team and propagandizing against the government,” according to state-linked media.
The judiciary announced their release Tuesday without elaborating.
Ahead of Tuesday’s match at Al Thumama Stadium, Iran has released a propaganda video with young children singing, including girls in white hijabs, in front of a small field. Waving flags and set against a blasting synthesizer beat, the children sing: “We back you on the bleachers, all with one voice Iran, Iran.”
“We are waiting for a goal, our heart second by second is beating for our Iran,” they add.
Such a win could prove to be a further boost to hard-liners. Already, they’ve reacted angrily to a protest by the U.S. Soccer Federation that saw them briefly erase the emblem of the Islamic Republic from Iran’s flag in social media posts.
It’s unclear whether any Iranian or U.S. government officials will be on hand for the match. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken already attended the U.S. match against Wales at the start of the tournament.
But opponents of Iran’s government are on hand in Qatar with their own message. Among them is former U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, who flew in Monday afternoon for the Iran match. Ortagus served in the Trump administration and was one of the faces of its so-called “maximum pressure” campaign.
“It’s one of those pivotal moments when geopolitics and sports collides,” Ortagus told The Associated Press. “You’re seeing the Iran team do what they can to stand up for the protesters and the people peacefully demonstrating.”
Qatar says worker deaths for World Cup ‘between 400 and 500’
A top Qatari official involved in the country’s World Cup organization has put the number of worker deaths for the tournament “between 400 and 500” for the first time, a drastically higher number than any other previously offered by Doha.
The comment by Hassan al-Thawadi, the secretary-general of Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, appeared to come off the cuff during an interview with British journalist Piers Morgan.
It also threatened to reinvigorate criticism by human rights groups over the toll of hosting the Middle East’s first World Cup for the migrant labor that built over $200 billion worth of stadiums, metro lines and new infrastructure needed for the tournament.
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In the interview, portions of which Morgan posted online, the British journalist asks al-Thawadi: “What is the honest, realistic total do you think of migrant workers who died from – as a result of work they’re doing for the World Cup in totality?”
“The estimate is around 400, between 400 and 500,” al-Thawadi responds. “I don’t have the exact number. That’s something that’s been discussed.”
But that figure hasn’t been discussed publicly by Qatari officials previously. Reports from the Supreme Committee dating from 2014 through the end of 2021 only include the number of deaths of workers involved in building and refurbishing the stadiums now hosting the World Cup.
Those released figures put the total number of deaths at 40. They include 37 from what the Qataris describe as nonwork incidents such as heart attacks and three from workplace incidents. One report also separately lists a worker death from the coronavirus amid the pandemic.
Al-Thawadi pointed to those figures when discussing work just on stadiums in the interview, right before offering the “between 400 to 500” death toll for all the infrastructure for the tournament.
In a later statement, the Supreme Committee said al-Thawadi was referring to “national statistics covering the period of 2014-2020 for all work-related fatalities (414) nationwide in Qatar, covering all sectors and nationalities.”
Since FIFA awarded the tournament to Qatar in 2010, the country has taken some steps to overhaul the country’s employment practices. That includes eliminating its so-called kafala employment system, which tied workers to their employers, who had say over whether they could leave their jobs or even the country.
Qatar also has adopted a minimum monthly wage of 1,000 Qatari riyals (US$275) for workers and required food and housing allowances for employees not receiving those benefits directly from their employers. It also has updated its worker safety rules to prevent deaths.
“One death is a death too many. Plain and simple,” al-Thawadi adds in the interview.
Activists have called on Doha to do more, particularly when it comes to ensuring workers receive their salaries on time and are protected from abusive employers.
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Al-Thawadi’s comment also renews questions on the veracity of both government and private business reporting on worker injuries and deaths across the Gulf Arab states, whose skyscrapers have been built by laborers from South Asia nations like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
“This is just the latest example of Qatar’s inexcusable lack of transparency on the issues of workers’ deaths,” said Nicholas McGeehan of Fairsquare, a London-based group which advocates for migrant workers in the Middle East. “We need proper data and thorough investigations, not vague figures announced through media interviews.
“FIFA and Qatar still have a lot of questions to answer, not least where, when, and how did these men die and did their families receive compensation.”
Mustafa Qadri, the executive director of Equidem Research, a labor consultancy that has published reports on the toll of the construction on migrant laborers, also said he was surprised by al-Thawadi’s remark.
“For him now to come and say there is hundreds, it’s shocking,” he told The Associated Press. “They have no idea what’s going on.”