Politics of Israel and Iran ensnare 1st World Cup in Mideast

JERUSALEM (AP) — Qatar can hope soccer fans ignore politics at the first World Cup in the Middle East. But Israel and Iran, enemies locked in conflicts across the region, bring sensitive flashpoints to the tournament’s doorstep.

Israel is not in competition, but it sees the massive show as a way to further integrate into the Middle East after establishing ties with two of Qatar’s Gulf Arab neighbors. Thousands of long-shunned Israeli tourists are set to fly to the Qatari capital of Doha on unprecedented direct flights.

Iran shaken by protests which erupted following the Sept. 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the country’s vice police has a lot at stake. The ground could provide Iranian activists with a large audience for event. Or he could hand Iran a win on the world stage in a first-round match against arch-rivals the United States.

The tournament’s location in the Persian Gulf emirate, a short flight from Israel and Iran, adds another layer of tension. Iranian and Israeli fans have seen World Cups before, but never at such an event in their own backyards.

“It’s always possible that Israeli and Iranian tensions will surface,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iran expert and dean of the Missouri University of Science and Technology. “Hardliners can be expected to try to make a statement.”

For Israel, sports tournaments have been essential in its quest for acceptance despite the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians.

In 2018, two years before the UAE formalized relations with Israel, the Israeli national anthem played and the country’s flag flew at a judo competition in Abu Dhabi. The scene of an Israeli Cabinet minister crying while singing “HaTikva” in the capital of the United Arab Emirates has caused a stir after years of Arab and Iranian players refusing to shake hands with Israelis and withdrawing from matches.

The so-called Abraham Accords Israel made in 2020 with Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates marked a turning point in the region. The prospect of Israeli normalization with Qatar, which helps fund militant Hamas leaders in the Gaza Stripmay seem far-fetched after Doha closed an Israeli trade office there in 2008.

But the unprecedented influx of thousands of Israeli fans into the conservative Muslim country could further Israel’s ambitions of becoming just another country in the region, experts say.

In a landmark deal announced Thursday, Qatar has promised to allow football fans from Israel and the Palestinian territories to travel directly to Doha. This includes residents of the occupied West Bank and the blockaded Gaza Strip, who would normally not be able to leave Tel Aviv.

“The sign that Qatar is letting the Israelis go there for the World Cup is an indication that they are ready to soften their stance on Israel,” said Emmanuel Navon, senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Qatar. Jerusalem.

In another first, Israel will set up a temporary consular service for tournament citizens, even if the countries do not have diplomatic relations. To avoid any reaction from the Palestinians, Qatar stressed that “its position on normalization (with Israel) has not changed”.

Many Israelis take the tournament as a rare opportunity to see an otherwise off-limits emirate.

“There’s only one time we can go,” said Gil Zilber, a fan from the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan with World Cup tickets. “I hear they (Qatar) support Hamas but I’m not afraid.”

Iran – and its soccer matchup with the United States on November 29 – also propelled the World Cup into explosive politics.

Protests that have swept Iran have turned into one of the boldest challenges to ruling clerics since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Security forces have sought to stifle dissent, killing more than 270 people, rights groups say.

Iranian activists have demanded that football’s world governing body FIFA expel Iran from the World Cup, citing the country’s violent crackdown and restrictions on female fans in football stadiums. The best football club in Ukraine also made the request regarding Iran’s military support to Russia in its war against Ukraine. However, Iran is still in competition.

What will happen on the pitch – whether team members wear armbands in solidarity with the protests as they did during the 2009 green movement or shake hands with their American rivals as they did in 1998 – is a tricky question. Already, dissidents abroad have called for demonstrations during matches.

Some Iranian players have spoken out in support of the protest movement. In a later deleted Instagram post, Iranian international striker Sardar Azmoun said he would sacrifice his place in the tournament for “a hair on the head of Iranian women”. In an act of defiance, he did not celebrate his goal in a match in Vienna at the end of September.

Former football stars have been more vocal. Two were arrested for supporting the protests.

“Soccer players in Iran have always taken the side of the people,” said Alex Vatanka, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

They will be closely monitored. When Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi competed in South Korea without wearing her country’s mandatory headscarf, she became a lightning rod for the protest movement. Some expect a similar international incident at the World Cup. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi last week instructed his foreign minister to “foresee and prevent possible problems”, the official IRNA news agency reported.

“Given the geographical proximity to Iran and the fact that speaking out against the regime has become so important, we are likely to see Iranians and expatriates using the World Cup as a show to express their protest,” Boroujerdi said.

Iran initially sought to cash in on this proximity – by promoting its island hotels to World Cup fans – but plans quickly fell apart. Meanwhile, foreigners have been arrested amid protests. A Spanish hiker traveling from Madrid to the World Cup has disappeared after crossing Iran.

“Nobody is willing to visit Iran in the current situation,” Tehran-based travel agent Omid Gholamhosseini said.

The country’s economic crisis also made it difficult for Iranian fans to pay for the trip, he added.

Despite the looming problems, some believe the World Cup can still offer an escape from harsh realities – some sense of togetherness and collective joy – even if just for a moment.

“It’s a great feeling,” said Dayan, a 38-year-old fan from northern Iran who is traveling to Qatar. He gave only his first name, fearing reprisals for speaking to a foreign journalist. “We as Iranians can be part of the celebration without any distance from the outside world.”

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