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Iran Protests Clash With World Cup

Iran’s loss in the World Cup comes at a time of deep internal division. The defeat has sparked scenes of both joy and despair, with protest and activism looming in the background. Anti-government protests have been ongoing in Iran since 22-year-old Kurdish woman Jina Mahsa Amini died in custody on September 16. The movement has since spread globally, with tensions now bleeding into the World Cup. This article will explore the collision of Iran’s internal unrest with the international spectacle of the quadrennial football tournament.


The participation of the Iran national team in Qatar has been politically charged, played against the backdrop of division and civil unrest. Consequently, many Iranians have refused to support their team in the tournament, viewing it as a symbol of the country’s clerical establishment.


The players initially seemed to show solidarity with the movement, refusing to sing the Iranian national anthem at their opening game against England. However, the team sang at their two remaining games against Wales and the USA after reportedly coming under pressure from Iranian authorities, which some saw as a betrayal. 


Protestors gathered in cities across Iran to celebrate their national team’s exit from the World Cup after losing to the USA on Tuesday night. However, amidst the fireworks and cheers, a man was shot in Bandar Anzali of Northern Iran. 27-year-old Mehran Samak was said to have been killed by security forces after honking his car horn in support of the US win. 


The Iranian judiciary’s Mizan Online news agency reported that Samak “died suspiciously after being hit in the head by shotgun pellets in the city of Bandar Anzali.” Taken from a statement by Gilan province prosecutor Mehdi Fallahmiri, the report claimed that an investigation had been opened into Samak’s death.


The national team returned on Wednesday night to a mixed welcome. Like many influential Iranian figures, the players face pressure from either side of the protests. At one end, activists claim they didn’t do enough to support the movement or critique the regime. At the other end is the pressure and scrutiny of the government, with many Iranian celebrities targeted for speaking out in solidarity with protesters. Since Amini’s death in September, protests have continued for over two months despite strict government crackdowns.


Morality police initially detained Amini in Tehran for wearing her hijab improperly in an alleged non-compliance with state dress codes. Within days, while still in police custody, she was pronounced dead, surrounded by suspicious circumstances. 


Police forces blamed Amini’s death on pre-existing health conditions, but her father denied these claims, effectively accusing them of a cover-up. Eyewitnesses also asserted that Amini was beaten while in custody and died due to police brutality. Furthermore, a CT scan seemed to prove that a blow to the head caused her death, showing bone fracture, haemorrhage, and brain oedema. Numerous Iranian news outlets reported that the chief of the morality police was suspended, though Tehran police denied these claims.


Hundreds gathered at Amani’s funeral on September 17 in defiance of official warnings. Initially peaceful, the gathering turned violent when security forces opened fire on the crowd outside the local governor’s office. In subsequent days, mass demonstrations erupted across Iran, with women and young people seemingly at the centre of the movement.


These protests against Iran’s clerical establishment have persisted for over two months despite strict government suppression. Alongside violent measures by state security forces to quell unrest, information streams have been disrupted to hinder communications. New and sustained state restrictions on speech, including internet shutdowns and journalist arrests, have made it difficult to ascertain the situation in Iran, especially for external parties.


Since November 13, at least five protesters have been sentenced to death by a Revolutionary Court in Tehran. The first execution linked to “riots” was handed out on Sunday, November 16, with three more the following Wednesday. Mizan Online reported the details of the sentences, all related to the spreading of terror and disruption of public order. 


The judiciary website also maintained that the verdicts were preliminary and still hold the possibility for appeal. Hundreds of people have received lesser charges for participating in the protests, with thousands more awaiting trial.


The court rulings relate to the spreading of terror and disruption of public order, as well as the crimes of “corruption on Earth” and “moharebeh” (waging war against God/the state), which are punishable by death. These are the grounds upon which the Iranian judiciary is basing its charges. 


In mid-November, reports citing a figure of 15,000 protesters sentenced to death circulated widely across social media and news outlets. However, these appear to have been misreported, stemming from a statement signed by 227 of 290 Iranian parliaments that those guilty of committing “moharebeh” should be dealt with “decisively” and taught a lesson. The misunderstood figures may have also been linked to the number of protesters arrested, which had recently exceeded 15,000.


As of Tuesday, December 6, the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) has placed the death toll of protesters at 473, including 64 children, with 18,227 individual arrests. It also reports 61 deaths on the side of the regime’s forces. On Monday, November 28, an Iranian general acknowledged that more than 300 deaths had occurred, giving the first official citing of protest casualties by authorities. Casualties and arrests continue to rise.


International reception - particularly in the West - has expressed support for the demonstrations, which Tehran has criticized as interference. The UN has released multiple statements urging Iranian authorities to “stop sentencing peaceful protestors to death” and to remove the thousands held captive. Iranian authorities have rejected a UN investigation into the protests, denouncing it as politically driven.


“Woman, Life, Freedom” has emerged as the rallying call of the movement, echoing across borders with solidarity protests held in cities around the world. Symbolic acts of defiance in Iran have been mirrored outside its walls, such as removing hijabs or cutting hair. The grassroots movement perseveres internally and externally, with demonstrations still held daily. The World Cup also served as an international stage for the action, with activists brandishing “Woman, Life, Freedom” flags and chanting their rallying calls. 


The Mahsa Amini protests have emerged as the biggest challenge to the Islamic Republic of Iran in over a decade. The country has had a tumultuous history of civil unrest, particularly in recent years, with widespread protests becoming a standard feature since the turn of the century. 


This latest wave of demonstrations is the largest since 2009 when protestors took to the streets to defy fraudulent election results. However, the scale of Iran’s current protests seems unprecedented, given estimates by external parties. 


Human rights groups have urged the international community to take action in warning Iranian authorities of the consequences of executing prisoners. In the future, the world must keep an eye on Iran and pressure against escalation.

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