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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Iranian Saudi Tensions Spill on to the Soccer Pitch


Tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia spilled on to the soccer pitch this week during a match in Tehran between Persepolis FC, Asia’s most popular club and Al-Ittihad, the first of four Asian championship matches to be played in the Islamic republic between Iranian and Saudi clubs.

Protesters demonstrating against Saudi support of the brutal crackdown on anti-government demonstrators in Bahrain clashed with police during the match, which Persepolis won 3:2. The 200 protesters in a crowd of 10,000 chanted "Death to Saudi."

BEHROUZ MEHRI / AFP - Getty Images
Iranian riot police confront militia Basij hardliners at the AFC Champions League group C match between Iran's Persepolis and Saudi's Al-Ittihad at the Azadi stadium in Tehran on May 3, 2011. Some 300 hardliners protested at the stadium against Saudi's policies (From http://photoblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/05/03/6577635-protest-at-iran-soccer-game-about-saudi-involvement-in-bahrain-quashed-by-police)

Saudi Arabia along with other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states sent to troops to Bahrain at the invitation of the government. Iran has accused Bahrain and Saudi Arabia of killing scores of Shiites demanding an end to discrimination by the ruling Sunni minority and the resignation of the island’s king.

Two protesters were reported to have been seriously wounded in the clashes in Tehran and several others were detained. Police expelled the protesters from the match in the middle of the second half.

BEHROUZ MEHRI / AFP - Getty Images
An Iranian riot policeman beats a militia Basij hardliner during the AFC Champions League group C match between Iran's Persepolis and Saudi's Al-Ittihad at the Azadi stadium in Tehran on May 3, 2011. Some 300 hardliners protested at the stadium against Saudi's policies on Bahrain where Shiite Muslim Bahrainis took to the streets of the kingdom in February and March calling for reform. (From http://photoblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/05/03/6577635-protest-at-iran-soccer-game-about-saudi-involvement-in-bahrain-quashed-by-police)

Soccer tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia first erupted in early March when Saudi immigration authorities demanded the Persepolis team be fingerprinted and iris scanned upon its arrival at Jeddah airport for an Asian championship match against Al Ittihad. The Persepolis team refused what is standard procedure for all visitors to the kingdom, and was held at the airport for eight hours.

Saudi officials last month threatened to withdraw their diplomats from Iran if they were not accorded greater protection following anti-Saudi demonstrations in front of the kingdom’s diplomatic missions in Iran.

The diplomatic sparring and soccer tensions are building blocks of an escalating cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia over Iranian support for its Shiite brethren in Bahrain as well as protests elsewhere in the Arab world and Gulf accusations of Iranian spying in Kuwait and Bahrain with a tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats.

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