Iran had better watch out. Fears of a death sentence for pro soccer player Amir Nasr-Azadani have shocked the world. The fact is, soccer fans and stars in Iran have been keeping the protests against the regime alive over the past few months, and Ayatollah Khameini’s mullahs may spark fury they can’t control.
Protests began at Mahsa Amini’s funeral on Sept. 17. Amini died in police custody after being arrested for not wearing a hijab. According to DW, women removed their headscarves, waved them in the air, and shouted “jin, jiyan, azadi” which in English means “woman, life, freedom.”
In any language, that is a heartfelt plea. And it’s been heard by Iran’s soccer community and their millions of social media followers.
“The solidarity shown by Iranian soccer stars is truly inspiring and deserves to be supported by sports organizations in the United States. They have sacrificed their personal well-being in order to serve as role models in the fight against dictatorship,” wrote Bahman Baktiari in the Desert News Dec. 8.
Even the U.S. Soccer Federation took action, wiping Iran’s revolutionary emblem from the Iranian flag graphic ahead of the Iran-USA match. “We wanted to show our support for the women in Iran with our graphic for 24 hours,” the USSF stated.
Now, 26-year-old Amir Nasr-Azadani is caught up in this mess.
Amir Nasr-Azadani is a professional soccer player, not an international star, but a hard-working former Iran youth standout who’s made a solid career while coping with injuries. He’s in serious trouble, because he was one of thousands seen at a protest in September.
Nasr-Azadani wasn’t anywhere near the place where Iranian riot police clashed with protesters. Apparently, all he did was show up and join the crowd chanting slogans. Iran takes the view that Nasr-Azadani is guilty of treason for protesting for women’s rights, and that carries a death sentence.
Let that sink in. Earlier this week, Iran executed protester Majidreza Rahnavard by hanging him at dawn from a construction crane.
Executing a pro soccer player could cause a shock wave in Iran and around the globe. Iranian fans showed solidarity with Amini at the World Cup before Iran was knocked out — by the USA. Famous former Iranian captain Ali Daei has had his business confiscated due to support for protests. Note that Daei is also a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and held a world record for scoring 109 goals in international play, a record just broken by none other than Cristiano Ronaldo in 2021.
The international players union FIFPRO said they were “shocked and sickened” over Nasr-Azadani’s death sentence and called on Twitter for “the removal of his punishment”
So where’s the U.S? So far, U.S. Soccer has done more than the Biden administration to support Iran’s protesters. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN he’s taking steps “diplomatically, across international organizations and with other countries” to denounce the oppression. Great, but that sure doesn’t sound like a top priority.
The power of sport in world politics can be profound – as evidenced by the case of Brittney Griner.
But with Iran, Team Biden remains chained to the Obama era of appeasement. As everybody knows, the Biden administration still wants to eke out a nuclear deal return even as Iran violates U.N. atomic energy pledges and safeguards. Iran’s latest outrage is sending drones and missiles for Russia to use against civilian targets in Ukraine. Still, Biden treads softly. Team Biden will send the president out to rail against puffed up “threats to democracy” here in the U.S. but can’t manage an eloquent speech in support of young Iranians.
How does Iran get away with all this? China, of course, is propping up Iran through energy purchases. But what’s really missing is true American leadership. Now is the time to keep maximum pressure on Iran in every way.