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James Corbett, Inside World Football


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Saudi-Iranian Tensions Spill on to the Soccer Pitch

Long-standing animosity between conservative Saudi Arabia and revolutionary Iran over Iran’s nuclear program and alleged incitement of Shiite Muslim minorities in predominantly Sunni Muslim Middle Eastern countries has spilt on to the soccer pitch.

Iran has complained to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) about this week’s fingerprinting and iris scanning of Tehran soccer team Persepolis FC, widely viewed as Asia’s most popular club, when it arrived at Jeddah airport for an Asian championship match against Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad on Wednesday.

Iranian legislator Seyed Hossein Naqavi, a member of parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, warned that Iran may retaliate against Saudi Arabia.

"As regards the fingerprinting of Persepolis in the Jeddah airport, we will retaliate and fingerprint al-Ittihad of Saudi Arabia," Naqavi said, referring to the expected visit to Iran of the Saudi team for its return match against Persepolis.

The Persepolis team was held at Jeddah airport for eight hours after it protested against the finger printing and iris scanning, a procedure imposed on all visitors to the kingdom.

"We believe the fingerprinting of Persepolis athletes is a disrespectful act and the move will not remain unanswered," Naqavi said.

Saudi Arabia has been particularly concerned about Iranian activity following mass anti-government protests in neighboring Bahrain, a predominantly Shiite Muslim Gulf state ruled by a Sunni Muslim majority.

Saudi leaders fear that the protests could spill over into its oil-rich Eastern Province where many of the kingdom’s minority Shia Muslims live.

Saudi Shiites have long complained about discrimination in the kingdom have taken their complaints in the past to the streets of the Eastern Province.

Saudi King Abdullah returned last week from three months abroad for medical treatment bearing gifts designed to insulate the kingdom from the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

For Abdullah's return, the government announced handouts worth $37 billion, intended to placate Saudis of modest means and squash bubbling discontent in the kingdom.

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