An Iranian citizen journalist, who writes under a pseudonym to protect his identity, wrote the following article on the ground inside Iran.
Only somebody like Mohammad Dadkan, the former Persepolis footballer who served as president of the Iranian Football Federation, can get away with making a comment like this live on state television: “Iranian sports are full of police and Revolutionary Guards commanders. What are they doing in sports? What are they doing in football? Do they want to hold Iranian sports back? If they are good managers, they should go back to their jobs in the barracks.”
It may be a controversial statement, but it is true. Revolutionary Guards’ transition from barracks to boardrooms began back in the mid-1990s, when they took on management roles in some of the country’s most high profile sports. So why have sports in Iran become so inundated by former Revolutionary Guards? What is their agenda? And what kind of influence do they have?
Whatever the answers, it is safe to assume that the divisions so prevalent in all aspects of Iranian society —the military, politics, religion — also play a key role in Iran’s sports. In fact, the politics of sports holds such sway in Iran that one hardliner drew comparisons between celebrating the nuclear deal and one of last year’s biggest football controversies, Tractor Sazi Football Club’s “false victory,” where fans believed their team had won, only to be informed amid celebrations that this was not the case. In Iranian sport, how often are influential figures put in high-ranking sports jobs to do something similar: control the course of events, and public expectations?
Below, we look at a few prime examples of the links between Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards and professional sport in Iran.
Without a doubt, Hasani-Khoo commands considerable influence in Iranian sports. Nicknamed “Gray Eminence” in line with his reputation of working behind the scenes, Hasani-Khoo is the director-general of security for the Ministry of Sports and Youth, brought in by President Rouhani-appointed Minister of Sports Mahmoud Goodarzi. Many within the ministry believe Hasani-Khoo effectively runs Iranian sport, not least because he has the power to veto the Sports Minister’s decisions. He also oversees sports publications and websites and holds regular meetings with editors of state-owned sports media agencies behind closed doors. It is reported that he has a long-standing relationship with the former Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi, now an advisor to President Rouhani. During the Iran-Iraq War he was a commander at the Intelligence Unit of the Revolutionary Guards.
Hasani-Khoo most recently hit the headlines during the November 2015 controversy around Iran’s Women’s Futsal Team. Hasani-Khoo informed the team that they would not be allowed to travel to Guatemala to take part in the 6th Women Futsal World Tournament. Soon after the announcement, President Rouhani stepped in and overrode Hasani-Khoo’s decision. And when the volleyball player Reza Safaei got into trouble in Brazil for allegedly sexually harassing a waitress, he was sent as a one-man team to bring him home.
Born Reza Alikhani, he is the brother Ehsan Alikhani, anchor of popular television program Honeymoon, broadcast during the holy month of Ramadan. Each time he changes jobs, he changes his name — he has even procured a new ID card and passport. But people close to him always refer to him as “Haj Reza” — a nickname from his time as a Revolutionary Guard in Iranian Kurdistan, where he was tasked with identifying separatist Kurds. After four years in Kurdistan, he moved to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) and it was he who introduced his brother to Iranian TV executives — though strangely, his brother claimed not to know anything about the name Reza Alikhani when sports journalists questioned him about it.
Although he is officially retired, Reza Hasani-Khoo still informally works for the Revolutionary Guards and the Intelligence Ministry, responsible for training Intelligence officers for the Guards.
Few people are aware that the head of Iran’s Volleyball Federation was once a commander for the Revolutionary Guards. During the 1980s, at the height of the Iran-Iraq War, Mohammad-Reza Davarzani was both deputy director of the Revolutionary Guards Physical Education Department and responsible for devising training operation programs for Guards forces. Following the war, he was appointed director of the department.
But after the war Davarzani suddenly appeared at the Iranian Federation of Polo and Horse Riding as its secretary and in 2000 he took over the presidency. From the early days of the revolution horseback riding has been a favorite of seminary students and the Revolutionary Guards because it had apparently been a much-loved activity of the Prophet Mohammad. Revolutionary Guards even took over the Pahlavi Riding Club — once the shah’s club — turning it into one of their Tehran headquarters.
After four years, Davarzani moved on to the Volleyball Federation, and he also managed volleyball and basketball teams at Sanam Sports Club, which was affiliated with the Ministry of Defense. Through his military connections, Davarzai was able to complete a university education. He now holds a Ph.D in management.
For most people, Davarzani is best known for his slightly odd celebration of Iran’s Young Adults Volleyball Team victory in a world competition. On live television, he congratulated the supreme leader on the win, but no one else — not the players, not their manager, and not even the Iranian public.
General Mostafa Ajarlou co-founded Fajr Football Club, which has direct links with the Revolutionary Guards. During the 1980s and 1990s, Mostafa had very close relations with Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who Ayatollah Khamenei appointed as the commander of the Guards Air Force in 1996. Ghalibaf has been the mayor of Tehran since 2005.
After the 1999 protests, when students demanded reform and greater freedoms, the supreme leader appointed Ghalibaf to head up the Iranian Police Forces. At the same time, Ajarlou was transferred from his position in the Revolutionary Guards to the police force, and put in charge of Pas Football Club, which is known as a police force-affiliated team. Ajarlou successfully persuaded Ghalibaf to transfer one percent of the national budget to his club. The funds had previously been earmarked to combat drugs problems and promote cultural activities. Armed with this huge budget, Ajarlou was able to attract top players with the promise of high salaries.
But Ghalibaf’s generous patronage eventually backfired. During a meeting in 2007, a security forces commander complained to Ayatollah Khamenei that security agents in remote areas and border stations lacked basic necessities while Javad Nekounam, the Pas team captain, was being paid an astronomical amount. The supreme leader immediately ordered that the club’s budget be drastically slashed, leading to the quick departure of Ajarlou.
Despite this scandal, Ajarlou’s career continued. He became head of various armed forces sports clubs, and even ran the popular Tractor Sazi Football Club for a time. But on August 15, 2010, he found himself caught up in another scandal. By then he was head of Steel Azin Team, and his decision to fire celebrity player and 2004 Asian Footballer of the Year Ali Karimi met with outrage from fans and some of Iran’s most powerful figures alike. Ajarlou had dismissed the player after Karimi allegedly broke fast during the holy month of Ramadan as part of his training regime. Two weeks after the decision, the club’s board fired Ajarlou and reinstated Ali Karimi.
Commander Mehdi Taj, Vice President of Iran’s Football Federation and head of the country’s Football Pro League Organization, is known as an expert in sports finance. Though it has been years since he has worn a uniform, he fought on the frontline of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) for three years and later as an intelligence expert for the Revolutionary Guards. After the war, he worked in the steel industry — and then, like so many of his fellow commanders, gravitated toward football.
Mehdi Taj has close ties to Revolutionary Guards top commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari. Their friendship goes back to the early days of the Iran-Iraq War — Taj is one the few people who can refer to General Jafari by his old nickname, Aziz, which translates as “dear.”
Like Mostafa Ajarlou, Taj was affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards’ Fajr Club for a period. But after he left the club, he has shown no interest in returning to clubs affiliated with the military, preferring to work for the Football Federation or with clubs with links to Iran’s industrial sector. He is also licensed to publish the newspaper Jahan-e Football (“The World of Football”) and used to be its managing editor. In recent years, however, he has appointed others to run the paper. Also unlike his colleagues, Taj shuns military accolades and has refused to go by the title “commander”.
And there are more…
The list of Revolutionary Guards commanders who have secured commanding positions in sports goes on. They include:
Mohammad (Anooshirvan) Rouyanian, CEO of Persepolis Football Team and the former Commissioner of Mazandaran Province Police,
Akbar Ghamkhar, logistics commander with Revolutionary Guards and president of Persepolis Football Club,
Lotfollah Forouzandeh Dehkordi, Deputy Head of the Revolutionary Guard’s Personnel Office in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province and member of the Persepolis Football Team’s board of directors,
Karim Mallahi, senior Revolutionary Guard commander for Tehran and CEO of Pas, Abu Muslim, Tractor Sazi and Qom’s Saba football teams
Hasan Tehrani Moghaddam, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ missile industries and member of Saba, Peykan and Abu Muslim teams’ board of directors,
Nasser Shahsavari, a commander at the Revolutionary Guards’ Missile Division and CEO of Mahram Basketball Team, member of the Wrestling Federation board of directors and CEO of Damash Sports Club,
Seyed Hashem Ghiasi, a Revolutionary Guards commander in Khorasan province and a member of Abu Muslim Football Club’s board of directors,
Naser Shafagh, Revolutionary Guards commander and member of the Iranian Football Federation’s board of directors, and
Azizollah Mohammadi, former commander of Revolutionary Guards’ ground forces and a member of the Iranian Football Federations board of directors.
The close relationship between sport and politics is, after all, a global phenomenon. And the above is ample evidence that sports in Iran is inextricably linked to one of Iran’s most powerful, elite institutions, the Revolutionary Guards.
By Arman Aramesh, Citizen Journalist