State Dept Voices Support for Iranian Athletes Ahead of World Cup Showdown With USA

Iranian soccer players protested regime during team's first match

Iranian players refuse to sing their national anthem at the World Cup / Reuters
November 28, 2022

Editor's Note: The Washington Free Beacon's decision to report on the World Cup does not in any way constitute an endorsement of soccer, a fundamentally evil and anti-American enterprise. 

Ahead of the United States' World Cup match on Tuesday against Iran, the State Department is expressing solidarity with Iranian players who made waves on the international stage when they refused to sing the Islamic Republic's national anthem.

The State Department told the Washington Free Beacon that it stands shoulder to shoulder with the Iranian athletes who during their match against England refused to sing as Iran's national anthem played, signaling their support for anti-regime protesters who have been rallying against the hardline government for the past two months. The State Department said it will be monitoring Iran in the coming weeks following the regime's threats to discipline the players. The Iranian government's intimidation tactics—which could include severe punishment once the players return home—appeared to have weighed on the athletes, who "half-heartedly" sang their national anthem prior to the nation's most recent game against Wales.

"Iran's leadership should be heeding their athletes' calls for change, rather than stifling them through intimidation and threats," the State Department official said. "The people of Iran and the nations of the world will be watching the athletes' treatment upon their return to Iran. If Iranian authorities deny the athletes their fundamental rights, it will only serve to further isolate Iran from the world."

The World Cup has emerged as a flashpoint in the Iranian government's relations with the West and particularly with the United States, which has used the tournament's popularity to draw attention to Tehran's human rights abuses. Iran is calling for the United States to be booted from the competition after the U.S. Soccer Federation altered pictures of the Islamic Republic's flag to express solidarity with protesters. The graphic, which was subsequently deleted, showed Iran's flag without the Islamic Republic's official symbol. A U.S. Soccer Federation source told CNN that change was deliberate and meant to show "support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights."

The State Department said it sees Iran's response to these protests as a signal the regime is "continuing a long history of employing draconian tactics to intimidate its athletes and stifle their freedom of expression—even from abroad. From soccer to rock climbing, martial arts, and chess—no Iranian athlete is spared from the Islamic Republic's intimidation and reprisals."

In another sign of the hardline regime's efforts to distract the world from its human rights abuses, Iranian journalists working for the country's state-controlled media attempted to grill U.S. men's team coach Gregg Berhalter about international affairs. During a press conference Monday afternoon, the Iranian propagandists asked the coach why he had not pressed the American government to relocate U.S. Naval ships in the region. Iran reporters also asked U.S. team captain Tyler Adams, who is black, if he had qualms about "representing a country that has so much discrimination against black people." The Iranian reporters, who take their orders from the state, did not mention their government's continued assault on and murder of its citizens.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, told the Free Beacon that, in addition to the U.S. government, American players can help amplify the protest movement's voice.

"U.S. soccer stars could also use their media time to read names of Iranian protesters who have been killed or jailed," Taleblu said. "This does not have to be limited to official Washington, as the recent but brief flag change of the U.S. Soccer Federation showed on social media." Additionally, the soccer federation "could permanently display the old flag of Iran, which bears the lion and sun, [which] are not monarchist but national Iranian symbols."

In a sign of how seriously Iran is taking these displays, the country's state television reportedly censored the Iranian soccer players by cutting the audio feed and interrupting the broadcast.

Iran's soccer team is not alone in its public protests. At a press conference earlier this month, Iranian soccer player Ehsan Hajsafi expressed open support for the growing protest movement within Iran.

Iranian protesters "should know that we are with them. And we support them," Hajsafi was quoted as saying. "We are here, but it does not mean we should not be their voice or we should not respect them."

Other Iranian athletes have made similar gestures at international events during the last month. During an early November soccer tournament in the United Arab Emirates, Iranian player Saeed Piramoun reportedly pretended to cut his hair, a signal of solidarity with Iranian women who are forced to wear hijabs. The protest movement began in September after Iran's morality police murdered a 22-year-old woman for not properly wearing her head covering.

An Iranian archer also made headlines this month when she pulled off her head covering during an award ceremony in Tehran.

The State Department spokesman said the United States supports "the rights of all athletes to express themselves however they wish."

Iran's soccer federation has vowed to punish athletes who lend their support to the protest movement, saying that "those who have not abided by professional and athletic ethics" would face consequences, according to a statement carried by Iran International.

While the State Department has been clear that it supports the protesters in their call for major reforms, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has come under fire for traveling to Qatar to attend the World Cup games, with critics saying his presence signals indifference about the Middle Eastern country's abysmal human rights record. Qatar relied on slave labor to build the infrastructure needed to host the World Cup.

Blinken, when faced with questions about his trip, said he makes "no bones about having the pleasure to actually come and cheer on Team USA." Several members of Congress, including Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.), also attended the soccer tournament.

Update 4:21 p.m.: This post has been updated following a press conference with the U.S. soccer team.