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USA vs. Iran is a geopolitical mess playing out at the World Cup

The World Cup, much like the Olympic Games, is always an inherently political affair. It’s impossible to gather so many nations in one place for an event without some geopolitical issues in the background that transcends sport and casts a shadow over the event. Even so, the critical deciding game between USA and Iran on Tuesday has gone to a whole new level.

In the lead up to the game there is virtually no focus on soccer. This has become a global political battle playing out on sports’ brightest stage, and it’s a total mess — regardless of what happens on Tuesday. So let’s try to understand the background and impact of why this game is so much more than just soccer.

A history of icy relations

It goes without saying that relations between the United States and Iran have been frosty for the better part of 75 years. The United States were a key player (along with the United Kingdom) in the 1953 coup to ensure the rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Shah, a move which was met with resentment by a significant portion of Irani citizens. Pahlavi was deposed during the Iran revolution of 1977, and relations between the U.S. and Iran took its darkest turn in 1979 when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized, leading to a hostage crisis which lasted over a year. As a result Iran has been under some form of economic sanctions for the last 43 years.

The 2022 protests

Without retracing the last four decades of the diplomatic rollercoaster between the U.S. and Iran, we can fast-forward to 2022. Relations between the nations have been in sharp decline for much of the year, with the State Department issuing multiple statements of condemnation ranging from petrochemical sales by Hezbollah, to additional sanctions against Iranian individuals who supplied Russia with drones for their invasion of Ukraine.

Things really came to a head in September during the Mahsa Amini protests, which are still ongoing. Amini, a 22-year-old woman, died after being detained by Iran’s “Guidance Patrol,” which serves as the law enforcement arm of Islamic law in the country, for wearing an “improper” hijab, or head scarf. Amini’s death set off widespread protests across Iran, with thousands of people, predominantly women, removing their hijabs and calling for social change as a result.

Protests burned police stations and cars as part of the protests, with spotty reports out of Iran (due to a coordinated cut of internet and social media) indicating that dozens of protesters were being shot and killed.

In October, protests went international, with coordinated demonstrations in major western cities showing support for Iranian women calling for freedom. At this point Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei downplayed the protests, essentially suggesting they were deep fakes created by Iran’s “foreign enemies” to destabilize the country. It should be noted there is no evidence of this being the case, and many Irani protesters were further angered by the suggestion their demonstrations weren’t organic, and rather a tool of the west.

In a speech on Nov. 3, President Joe Biden said the United States would “free Iran,” adding that protesters were “freeing themselves.” In response, Iran president Ebrahim Raisi said that “Iran was freed 43 years ago,” referring to the revolution, while calling protesters “deceived traitors.”

Protest comes to the World Cup

Players on Iran’s World Cup team took unprecedented steps to undermine their own country while in Qatar. Players wore black jackets in a friendly with Senegal leading up to the Cup, choosing not to display their team uniforms or the flag.

When competition officially began numerous Iranian players tweeted that they stood with protesters back home, or in the case of midfielder Saman Ghoddos, speaking to western media:

“No one is happy about it and everybody wants to see a change,” he said. “What the people want is nothing special — it’s just freedom. I don’t want to say go fight for it because I don’t think violence is the right way, but something needs to change, and this has been going on for too long.”

Iran players refused to sing the national anthem during their opener against England. It started a stand-off between protesters and pro-government fans who traveled to Qatar for the World Cup, and as a result the players would drop their anthem protest in an effort to reduce the temperature in Qatar.

The stakes of USA vs. Iran, and “the tweet”

With the USA playing to a draw against both Wales and England, while Iran lost to England and beat Wales, the showdown for Tuesday was set. The winner would make it through to the Round of 16, and the loser would be eliminated.

It was a possible, but unlikely possibility now realizing itself — with the political relations between the two nations at the fore. Then, over the weekend, U.S. Soccer took a stand of its own. In a now-deleted tweet, their account posted the standings from Group B, with a doctored Iranian flag which removed the Islamic Republic emblem from from the center of the flag. Initially believed to just have been an error, or a social media shortcut, it was later confirmed to be an intentional protest of Iran.

It led to calls from Iranians to expel the United States from the World Cup, a message which was ignored by FIFA — but still caused ire. This carried over into the pre-game press conference on Monday, which went completely off the rails.

There were no attempts to ask U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter about the game, and instead the focus was on geopolitical questions he wasn’t equipped to answer. Iranian reporters also peppered USMNT captain Tyler Adams with questions about how he felt representing a country that discriminated against black people. It appeared to be a coordinated effort by the Iranian media contingent to use the opportunity to take shots at the U.S., rather than focus on the game at all.

The stakes of the game on Tuesday are bigger than anyone imagined

This is no longer about which team advances in the World Cup. Instead it’s a geopolitical propaganda battle playing out in soccer. The government of Iran desperately wants the team to beat the United States to shame their western enemies, while the USMNT appears to be caught up in a situation they didn’t ask for — but are in the middle of like it or not.

No matter what happens Tuesday, the stakes and emotions will be higher than any group stage match in recent memory.

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