EIU Democracy Ranking: 150/167
Iran are Saudi Arabia’s biggest rivals in the Middle East. The structure of the two countries though is very different. Iran is explicitly a theocracy, unlike Saudi Arabia where the royal family is above the Islamic leadership in the hierarchy (though the two rely on each other to maintain their power). In Iran the head of state is Ali Khamenei, a Marja, who holds the title “Supreme Leader of Iran.” This state of affairs came about due to the Islamic Revolution in 1979. This was a series of street protests against the Iranian Shah, a monarch who was supported by Britain and the United States. In 1953 Britain and the United States had overthrown the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in order to protect their interests in Iranian oil and ensure that Iran would be an ally against the Soviet Union. Resentment for this was still alive and well in Iran for this. The distaste for the secular authoritarian government was such that an authoritarian theocratic leader, like Rubollah Khomeini, could gain support.
Khomeini notably voiced his support for the Iranian protesters who took hostages at the U.S embassy in 1979. This raised his prestige in Iran because he showed that he was willing to take radical steps to rid Iran of foreign influence. This should not be confused with Khomeini masterminding the hostage crisis, he simply voiced his support for it after it was already underway. After the Shah fled to Egypt, Iran voted to become an Islamic republic and Khomeini became the Supreme Leader of Iran. A new constitution was created which declared Shia Islam the official religion of Iran.
Today the title of Supreme Leader is held by Ali Khameni, who succeeded Khomeini after his death in 1989. Iran has a parliament and a President but their power is limited. The Supreme Leader (as the name implies) is the head of state. The Supreme Leader appoints a Guardian Council. This Council consists of 12 men, six of whom are selected by the Supreme leader and six of whom are selected by the head of the judiciary. The Guardian Council can veto legislation and anybody who runs for public office must receive the approval of the Council. Suffice to say there’s not much room for difference of opinion.
Football has been a place where the President and the religious leadership has often clashed in Iran. Iran does not allow women in to stadiums and this is quite embarrassing for FIFA as it undermines their thin veneer of being an organization that cares about human rights. The current president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has been visited a number of times by new FIFA president Giani Infantino and each time the topic of women in football has been raised. Rouhani has apparently indicated to Infantino that women will be allowed in stadiums soon but this will be an uphill battle. Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also tried to lift the stadium ban for women, only for it to be vetoed by the Guardian Council.
Of the four countries profiled in this series the Iranian team is probably the one with the fewest ties to the regime. Apart from being visited by Rouhani after qualification, the Iranian team doesn’t do much to promote the regime itself. This is not to say that they are free from politics though. In August of 2017 two Iranian players, national team captain Masoud Shojae and Ehsan Haji Safi, were handed lifetime bans from the national team for playing against Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv in a Europa League qualifier. Goalkeeper Sosha Makani has also received a couple of bans over his career, once for taking pictures with a woman who was not wearing a veil (an offence that landed him a brief stint in prison) and on another occasion for taking a picture whilst wearing “Spongebob pants.” If you’re a player for the Iranian national team you cannot poke a toe out of line when it comes to conduct. Even if the religious leadership of the country doesn’t try to explicitly turn the national team into a propaganda tool in the same way somebody like El Sisi or Putin does, there is something to be said for hoping a group who’s rules are so illiberal does not find success.
Of course the Iranian regime is not at its most stable going into the World Cup. In 2017 there were protests in Iran. The origin of the protests was dissatisfaction that the economic relief after the lifting of sanctions had not made its way down to the Iranian people. Could a poor performance at the World Cup spur dissatisfaction with the regime and increase the fervour of the protests? Or conversely could an impressive performance by the team inspire the Iranian people to fight for their freedom? Unfortunately, as much as I’d like either of these scenarios to happen they aren’t particularly likely. The protests are mostly driven by economic complaints rather than anger at the theocratic nature of the regime. So, while there have been some calls of “death to the dictator,” the odds that these protests will lead to an overthrow of the Islamic leadership are low.