Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad struggles in parliament and on the soccer pitch
By James M. Dorsey
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s waning political fortunes suffered a double blow this week: the conservative victory in parliamentary elections and the re-election of Iranian Football Federation (IFF) president Ali Kafashian in defiance of the Iranian leader’s efforts to ensure his defeat.
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s candidate in IFF elections when he first ran for president four years ago, Mr. Kafashian’s performance has done little to ensure that Iranian soccer helped the hands-on, soccer playing Iranian leader polish his tarnished image. On the contrary. Iranian soccer has been going from bad to worse under Mr. Kafashian’s leadership.
The soccer pitch on Mr. Kafashian’s watch has repeatedly in Tehran and Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan, turned into a venue for protest against Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government. The IFF president is also the fall guy for the failure of successive national coaches to deliver performance even though Mr. Ahmadinejad takes a direct interest in their appointment.
The coaches failed to take Iran to World Cup finals or triumph in Asian Cups, dashing Mr. Ahmadinejad’s hopes that the national team’s resulting prestige would rub off on him. Iran still stands a chance for qualifying for the 2014 Brazil World Cup.
Nonetheless, Iran’s Olympic women’s team was disqualified last year for wearing a hijab, a headdress favoured by observant Muslim women players, in violation of world soccer body FIFA rules. Adding insult to injury, Mr. Kafashian last year withdrew his candidacy for a seat on the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) executive committee..
As a result, Mr. Kafashian’s re-election campaign faced opposition from two candidates: one backed by the government, the other by the Revolutionary Guards, which has been taking in recent years an ever greater interest in Iranian soccer.
Ironically, the fact that Mr. Kafashian decided to stand as a candidate despite the loss of support of his former sponsors and his willingness to challenge the government publicly may have worked in his favour. In statements to the media, Mr. Kafashian made no bones of the fact that the government was interfering in the IFF election to engineer his defeat. Iran was briefly suspended by FIFA in 2006 for interfering in the federation’s elections.
Mr. Kafashian drove his newly found assertiveness home by vowing in his campaign to improve the financial and commercial position of clubs and ensure that the federation would enjoy greater independence in his second term. That is a tall order in a country in which the majority of clubs are owned by government-related entities, people close to the Revolutionary Guards have been joining boards and in which the president sees the federation as one of his soft power tools.
It would also mean ensuring that clubs meet FIFA criteria for membership in a premier league, which include financial independence, ownership of a stadium and the fact that its owners have only one club in the league – all conditions that would significantly reduce the government’s influence on soccer.
Last weekend’s decision by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which determines the rules of the game, to test a new headdress for women that complies with player’s cultural demand as well as safety and security standards poses a challenge for Mr. Kafashian. While it ensures that Iran will no longer be disbarred as long as it adheres to the new headdress rather than the hijab, Mr. Kafashian will still have to manage the issue that wearing the headdress is mandatory rather than voluntary not only for Iranian players but also for visiting foreign women’s teams.
All of this is hardly good news for Mr. Ahmadinejad, who according to a 2009 US diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks concluded that the president’s efforts to make soccer work to his political advantage had achieved only limited success.
The Iranian president went as far as in 2006 lifting the ban on women watching soccer matches in Iranian stadia, but in a rare public disagreement was overruled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Documenting Mr. Ahmadinejad’s active interest in soccer, the US cable reported that he pressured the Iranian football federation to lift its 2008 suspension of star Ali Karimi so that he could play in 2010 World Cup qualifiers, engineered the 2009 firing of Ali Daei as coach, ensured that Mr Daei’s successor Mohamed Mayeli-Kohan lasted all of two weeks in the job so that his candidate would be appointed.
Mr. Ahmedinejad has justified his interference telling Iranian journalists that “unfortunately, this sport has been afflicted with some very bad issues. I must intervene personally to push aside these destructive issues.”
Like in other Middle Eastern nations, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s efforts to politically manipulate the beautiful game turned the soccer pitch into a platform for dissent for which the president wanted him to take the blame in this year’s IFF election.
The Iranian federation postponed league matches in Tehran in February of last year in a bid to prevent celebrations of the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution from turning into anti-government protests inspired by the toppling of the Egyptian and Tunisian presidents by mass anti-government protests.
The funeral in May of last year of famous Iranian soccer player Nasser Hejazi, an internationally acclaimed defender and outspoken critic of the president in Tehran’s Azadi stadium turned into a mass protest against the government of Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Mourners chanted “Hejazi, you spoke in the name of the people” in a reference to Mr. Hejazi’s criticism of the Iranian president’s economic policies. Mr. Hejazi took Mr. Ahmadinejad in April publicly to task for Iran’s gaping income difference and budgetary measure, which hit the poorest the hardest.
Mourners in the Behsht Zahra cemetery where Mr. Hejazi was buried shouted “Mubarak, Bin Ali, now it’s your turn Khamenei!” in reference to ousted Egyptian and Tunisian presidents Hosni Mubarak and Zine Abedine Ben Ali and Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mr. Hejazi tried to run for president as an independent candidate in Iran’s 2005 elections, but was forced by authorities to withdraw.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.