Iranian women recently cheering on their women’s
national soccer team in a match against Germany
President Mahmoud Ahmindenajad may be a hardline hawk and who spends much of his time constructing political messages that challenge Iran’s ruling Mullahs from the nationalist right, but he also clearly has a populist’s touch rather than the heavy hand of a clerical conservative. That much was clear recently when he shocked Iran’s clerical establishment by reversing a decades-old decree banning women from attending male soccer matches. Not even his reformist predecessor Mohammed Khatami was so bold as to challenge the Mullahs on that one, yet it displayed Ahmedinajad’s keen sense of the popular sentiment. Iranian women have chafed under those restrictions, and this being a World Cup year, allowing them into soccer stadiums is a smart move. Iran is going to the World Cup in Germany, and on previous occasions their performances have drawn tens of thousands of young men and women onto the streets of Tehran to celebrate — much to the chagrin of the Mullahs, whose harsh responses turned those soccer celebrations into de facto protests against the regime. Ahmedinajad is smart enough to read the winds, and make sure he’s positioning himself on the right side of popular sentiment.
Which is also what he’s doing on the nuclear issue, although there he’s also doing his best to whip up emotions in the hope of denying his more pragmatic rivals the space to engineer compromises with the West. That the Bush administration has failed to grasp the impact of its saber-rattling on the nuclear issue is plain to see: Anyone who sees Iran through anything other than the neocon-Likud prism knows that the confrontation is actually entrenching the power of the most hardline and retrograde elements in the regime, and launching a war (which is what a “surgical” strike on its nuclear facilities will certainly do, whatever the wishful fantasies of the Washington hawks may lead them to believe) will delay the onset of a more liberal democratic order in Iran by decades. Don’t take it from me, listen to Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize winning liberal jurist and dissident, who has repeatedly warned that an attack on Iran will rally the population behind the regime.
But Ahmedinajad’s liberalization of the rules governing attendance at soccer matches points to another foolish mistake currently being considered by the U.S. and its European allies: Banning President Ahmedinajad from attending the World Cup. Ahmedinajad is planning to attend a few games, and there’s not much Germany can do to stop him being there as a head of state. But those frustrated at their failure to get UN Security Council endorsement for any kind of sanctions against Iran are now hoping to resort instead to such symbolic sanctions — indeed, an EU-wide travel ban on Iran’s leaders might be the only way for Germany to stop Ahmedinajad showing up.
Something tells me, though, that a nation that has rallied behind its leadership on the nuclear issue out of national pride is not going to take kindly to having its president barred from watching the national team play in the World Cup. Were that to happen, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Tehran decide to withdraw its team from the World Cup altogether – a devastating blow to the young people of Iran who simply want to see their country assume its place in the international community, but on the basis of retaining its pride and dignity. But were that to happen, would they blame their leaders’ nuclear stance, or the West? And would it strengthen or weaken President Ahmedinajad, latterday patron of a woman’s right to enjoy a good game of footie?