When the Iranian national team faced the English squad in the first round of the 2022 World Cup, the most significant event was not the result, a comfortable 6-2 victory for the Three Lions. Instead, it was the silence of the Iranian team during the national anthem.
The uncomfortable silence was a form of solidarity for the protest movement that swept Iran following the suspicious death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody on September 16, 2022.
The actions of the Iranian team were not welcome in Iran. A Tehran official said no one should insult the anthem and the flag. An Iranian MP argued that the team should be replaced by youths who are faithful to the revolution and can sing the national anthem.
Yet, the same national football team drew opprobrium from protesters after they were seen bowing before President Ebrahim Raisi before flying out to Qatar. The same protesters cheered as the Iranian football team lost against England.
Something seemingly innocuous as football has also come to symbolise the deep chasms within Iranian society. This, however, is a rift pre-dating the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which replaced the Shah’s paranoid and morally bankrupt regime with a divisive theocratic regime. The underlying tensions of 1979 remain unresolved.
The 22-year-old Amini was at the train station with her brother before being stopped by the police. Her crime was non-compliance with the strict rules concerning the hijab. The state claims that Amini had prior health conditions; the family denies this.
The size and persistence of the protests demonstrate that many believe Amini’s family rather than the authorities. The protests began outside the hospital where she was treated and later spread to other parts of the country. The regime responded by imposing an internet blackout and restricting social media. Counter-protests were held to show support for the Iranian government. These protesters have labelled the original protests as “riots” instigated by the US and Israel. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave credence to this argument after he labelled the protests a “foreign plot”.
The regime has also been eager to quell these protests. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps used heavy military armaments and live ammunition to silence protestors. A newspaper was shut down after suggesting that the authorities shot a 10-year-old boy rather than “terrorists” – as the official narrative claims.
The slightest suggestion that the Iranian state is lying could lead to a summons by the police. Various politicians, journalists and actors were among those questioned.
All of this may seem like a matter internal to Iran. But, unfortunately, it is not so.
Firstly, if one argues that human rights are universal, one must be concerned whenever such rights are breached.
Secondly, Iran lies at one of the most significant geopolitical points globally. Instability in this part of the world tends to have ripple effects in other regions. This is one of the reasons why many countries have – wrongly – tried to influence the internal politics in Iran.
Thirdly, it also highlights the nature of the regime in Iran. This is not merely an authoritarian regime willing to sacrifice the lives of its people for the sake of its perpetuation. It is also a regime which does not baulk at stirring the pot further in international conflicts.
Ukraine is one such example. Iranian drones have been used in Ukraine. Iran denied sending Iranian personnel to train Russians in firing such drones. However, it was forced to admit that it supplied some weapons to Moscow.
These are all warning signs of a regime that may be under pressure but becomes ruthless in the face of such pressures.
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