In a stunning development, Qatar’s Bin Hammam reportedly defends Iran against Saudi criticism

Asian Football Confederation (AFC) chief Mohammed Bin Hammam, in his first foray into the escalating cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has reportedly rejected criticism by Saudi soccer clubs of Iran’s hosting of several Asian Clubs Championship matches, according to state-run Iran’s Fars News Agency.

“I am informed that the Saudi clubs have traveled to Iran without any problems and have not been insulted. They went to Tehran and Isfahan in full health and returned to their country without being offended,” the agency, which is believed to be controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, quoted Mr. Bin Hammam as saying.

The remarks by Mr. Hammam, a prominent Qatari national, follow anti-Saudi demonstrations earlier this month during a match between Iran’s Persepolis FC and the kingdom’s Al-Ittihad in Tehran’s Azadi stadium. His remarks also follow the announcement of an Iranian bid to host the FIFA Club World Cup in 2013 and 2014, and mounting tension between the oil-rich Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran over alleged Iranian instigation of anti-government protests in the Arab world.

Mr. Hammam’s remarks are certain to spark Gulf criticism of the AFC chief as he seeks to boost his troubled campaign to challenge Sepp Blatter, the imperious Swiss head of world soccer body FIFA, in presidential elections at the end of this month. His remarks would certainly stun fellow leaders in the six Gulf Arab States.

Fars quoted Mr. Bin Hammam as shrugging off the anti-Saudi demonstrations, saying that such incidents could occur anywhere.

The Saudi football federation, with more Saudi clubs scheduled to play Asian Cup matches in Iran in the coming weeks, has asked the AFC to move those games to a neutral third venue because of concerns about security. The federation is likely to see Mr. Bin Hammam’s remarks as a rejection of its request.

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.

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.

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.

It may not be coincidence that Fars chose to run Mr. Bin Hammam’s comments.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards over the last two years have successfully increased their influence on the beautiful game by increasing their presence on the boards of Iranian premier league clubs, most of which are owned by government institutions and state-run companies.

Gulf states believe that the Revolutionary Guards have played a key role in exploiting the protests in Bahrain and elsewhere.


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