DOHA, Nov 29 (Reuters) – Diplomatic foes the United States and Iran face off on the World Cup pitch on Tuesday, with some Iranians fearing further run-ins with stadium security or clashes with pro-government fans. Protests are raging at home.
The match between the two nations, which severed ties 40 years ago, will be held under heavy security to prevent an escalation of tensions in Iran following the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on September 16. .
In a show of solidarity ahead of the match, which starts at 1900 GMT, the US soccer federation temporarily displayed Iran’s national flag without the Islamic Republic’s emblem, prompting Tehran to complain to FIFA, state media said.
Qatar, which has strong ties with Washington and cordial relations with Tehran, has staked its reputation on delivering a smooth World Cup, stepped up security at Iran’s games and banned some inflammatory items such as Iran’s pre-revolutionary flag.
Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Khani arrived in Doha on Tuesday at the invitation of Qatar, state news agency IRNA reported, without specifying whether he would attend the match.
US-Iranian relations have particularly soured since then-President Donald Trump abandoned Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers. Efforts to save the deal have stalled under President Joe Biden’s administration.
The World Cup, which will be held for the first time in a Middle Eastern country, has become politically charged.
Security teams were deployed when Iran beat Wales on Friday to “break up a small number of altercations” between Iranian fans outside the stadium, a Qatari official said, adding that the incidents were handled “quickly” to contain tensions.
“I will not attend the game on Tuesday because I am not safe in Qatar,” said Aji, an Iranian-Canadian, who declined to give his last name and wore a T-shirt proclaiming ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ – a slogan Iran protests.
“Qatar is running the same censorship system as what is happening in Iran … well FIFA takes the blame,” she told Reuters about her outfit being stopped by stadium security.
Hila Yadegar, 37, plans to attend the Iran-Wales match to show support for the protesters despite similar protests from stadium guards and in Qatar.
Yadegar, who works in a hospital in Canada, said, “Even though our room in the hotel was locked, I put a chair behind it.”
The Iranian team is under pressure
A Qatari official, when asked about security concerns and complaints over the restrictions, said officials will ensure all matches are “safe and welcoming for all spectators”.
The official said items that “raise tension and endanger the safety of fans” are not allowed in stadiums.
Gulf Arab monarchies, including Qatar, do not tolerate domestic dissent, and protests in the region are rare.
Under pressure to publicly support the protesters at home, the Iranian team refused to sing the national anthem in their first match against England, which they lost 6–2. But he sang the anthem before a 2-0 win over Wales in his second game.
After Friday’s victory, an Iranian fan showed support for protesters in a T-shirt with the image of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Qassem Soleimani, who were killed by a US drone strike in 2020.
Unrest in Iran poses one of the boldest challenges to the theocracy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Washington has imposed sanctions on Iranian officials over a deadly crackdown on protests.
The United States and Iran severed formal ties in 1980 following a revolution, and relations were hostile when their soccer teams clashed at the 1998 World Cup. Iran emerged with a 2-1 win in what has been called the “mother of all football matches”.
Reporting by Maya Gebeli and Charlotte Bruno; Additional reporting by Elwelly Elwelly in Dubai; Writing by Ghaida Ghantas; Edited by Peter Rutherford, William Maclean
Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.