Ahmedinajad trains with Iran’s World Cup Squad
Having failed so far to get any traction on efforts to impose sanctions on Iran, frustration is creeping in among some of its foes as they seek new, innovative ways to punish Tehran. And with Iran due to join 31 other teams at the World Cup in Germany in June, some are lobbying FIFA to expel Iran from the tournament. Mercifully, most European leaders have shunned the idea, and FIFA has made clear it’s a non-starter. Because it’s a spectacularly bad idea. Soccer is a source of national pride to Iranians at home and throughout the exile Diaspora, and the World Cup has traditionally presented a challenge to the Mullahs as tens of thousands of young men and women gather in the streets to celebrate their victories in de facto defiance of multiple conservative edicts. As I’ve noted previously, populist hardliner President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad has recognized the appeal of soccer among elements of civil society opposed to the regime, and has even moved to put himself on-side with that trend by attempting to reverse a decades-old religious edict against women attending matches.
Banning Iran from the tournament would probably have the same effect on the citizenry as a military attack would, rallying them behind the regime in response to a national humiliation. (Many Iranians are fed-up with always being cast in the Western media as a terrorist nation, and soccer is one place where they show their true face as a nation looking to participate as equals on a fair basis in the global community.) But that’s not likely.
What I’m worried about is the move to bar Ahmedinajad personally from attending his country’s games. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is coming under pressure to use her country’s laws against Holocaust denial to declare him persona non-grata, but that’s a tough call when the person in question is a head of state. She has indicated that only an EU travel ban would make that possible, and that’s very unlikely to occur in time for the World Cup. The Germans are hoping Ahmedinajad gets the message and stays away, warning that he would be called to answer for his positions on Israel and the Holocaust if he shows up. But that may be just the sort of dog-and-pony show you seek if you’re Mahmoud Ahmedinajad and you don’t like the way nuclear negotiations are going between the West and the more pragmatic elements who trump Ahmedinajad in Iran’s power structure. If the search is on for a diplomatic solution, which Ahmedinajad may well seek to sabotage for his own domestic power reasons, then the more prudent approach may simply be to ignore Ahmedinajad if he decides to show up in, uh, Nuremberg, for Iran’s opener against Mexico on June 11.