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Thugs on the Stands: The Securitization of Iranian Football

July 15, 2021
10 min read
Both Esteghlal and Persepolis FCs have been firmly under the control of Iranian regime insiders since 1990
Both Esteghlal and Persepolis FCs have been firmly under the control of Iranian regime insiders since 1990
Mehdi Taj, a former Isfahan IRGC head of intelligence, headed Sepahan FC before becoming as president of the National Football Federation
Mehdi Taj, a former Isfahan IRGC head of intelligence, headed Sepahan FC before becoming as president of the National Football Federation
Iranian football legend Ali Daei was sacked from Saipa FC after pointing out that the club's director-general, an ex-IRGC member, was operating under a pseudonym
Iranian football legend Ali Daei was sacked from Saipa FC after pointing out that the club's director-general, an ex-IRGC member, was operating under a pseudonym
The military and security presence at Iranian football clubs from 1990 until today was the focus of a two-hour conversation recently hosted by IranWire on Clubhouse
The military and security presence at Iranian football clubs from 1990 until today was the focus of a two-hour conversation recently hosted by IranWire on Clubhouse

From the winter of 1989-90, when the Islamic Republic first decided to bring Esteghlal FC and Persepolis FC under its control, through to the beginning of the Khatami era, when Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders were co-opted into Iranian clubs, rarely if ever has the beautiful game been as politicized as it is in Iran today.

Esteghlal – formerly Taj – is today under the supervision of the state’s Physical Education Organization, while Persepolis is a subsidiary of the Mostazafan Foundation (the Foundation for the Oppressed and Veterans of the Islamic Revolution). The military and security presence at Iranian football clubs from 1990 until today, as well as the use of hired "thugs" to organize and control the benches, was the focus of a two-hour conversation recently hosted by IranWire on Clubhouse. Mehdi Mahmoudian, a lawyer and political activist from Tehran, and Taghi Rahmani, a journalist and human rights advocate from Paris, were among those to take part.

On February 16, 1990, two matches between Esteghlal and Persepolis at Tehran's Shiroudi and Azadi Stadiums were canceled due to heavy rain. The decision was made just hours before the start of the tournament. A crowd of 3,000 Esteghlal supporters waiting outside Shiroudi shouted for the doors to be opened – a demand that quickly turned into “Death to the Islamic Republic” on discovering that the game had been called off.

Then-head of the Physical Education Organization Hassan Ghafouri-Fard claimed the main culprit was the Tehran Football Board, which had wanted to cancel the match to mark the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Then-Interior Minister Abdollah Nouri promptly had Hassan Aminbakhsh, the head of the Tehran Football Board, arrested.

The eventual result was the transfer of Persepolis to the Physical Education Organization, bringing both sides under the shadow of Iran’s security apparatus. Ali Agha-Mohammadi became the new president and CEO of Esteghlal; he would later be described by Asr-e Iran newspaper as one of "three permanent trustees of the regime" alongside Mohammad Shariatmadari and ex-judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi. This became a lifetime role for Agha-Mohammadi, whose niece is also married to one-time Esteghlal chairman Ali Fathollahzadeh.

Persepolis was taken over by Abbas Ansari-Fard, one of the founders of the Mostazafan Foundation, whose brother was one of the first bodyguards to be taken on by Ruhollah Khomeini's office. Later a governor for Lorestan, East Azerbaijan and Khorasan, Amir Abedini, became the club’s CEO. As IranWire reporter Payam Younesipour told the Clubhouse room, in the 1990s, Abedini would put bounties on the heads of opposition members in Khorasan.

In 2007, Revolutionary Guards commander Nasser Shafagh – real name Nasser Haj Hosseinlou – became the chairman of another Iranian football club: the Tabriz-based Tractor SC. Today Shafagh is a board member at the national Iranian Football Federation. Eight other IRGC commanders joined the Tractor board in 2009 after it reached the Premier League, with Sardar Mohammad Hossein Jafari finally becoming its managing director, allowing the club to be absorbed seamlessly into the Guards’ Ashura Division stationed in Tabriz.

Three years ago, the businessman Mohammad Reza Zonouzi, who was previously best known as the buyer of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Peugeot 504 car, bought Tractor SC from the Revolutionary Guards. The previous general manager had been the IRGC’s Mostafa Ajorloo.

 In fact, Zonouzi had been arrested in July 2012 for alleged involvement in a 3 trillion toman fraud case – in which he was referred to in court documents simply as “MZ” – but had walked free after posting a 500 million toman bail. The Young Journalists Club wrote that Zonouzi’s release had occurred “so that he can pay his debts on time... Zonouzi has so far managed to pay 1.38 trillion tomans back to the country's banks and part of the debt still stands.”

Elsewhere, in Isfahan, Akbar Torkan is regularly credited with being the decider of Sepahan SC’s destiny after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The club’s current CEO, Mohammad Reza Saket, had formerly served as the commander of Isfahan Basij and was Torkan’s personal driver before becoming the chairman of Isfahan Football Board. Mehdi Taj, a former Isfahan IRGC head of intelligence who played a role in the suppression of the Kurds of Kurdistan in the 1980s, came to football after the Iran-Iraq war and became Sepahan’s managing director and chairman.

Pro-Regime 'Thugs' Spend Downtime on the Benches

Mehdi Mahmoudian, a lawyer, activist and long-time follower of football in Iran, told the Clubhouse audience about the regime’s systematic use of “thugs” in Iranian stadiums: the same petty criminals who were rounded up, beiefed and used to attack protesters in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 election.

"In 2007,” he said, “the police and the Sarollah Base – Tehran's security base – began a mutual effort to organize the people they referred to as ‘mobs’ and ‘thugs’. That year, law enforcement bodies launched a project called Social Promotion. The first phase of the plan was to gather them together. I witnessed this, and I remember they were treated inhumanely, and taken to Kahrizak Detention Center without any information about their fate.

“At that time, the deputy commander of the Sarollah Base was Sardar [Hossein] Hamedani, who was later killed in Syria. Years later, he stated that the plot had been carried out by Basij forces under the control of the Sarollah Base. These individuals were identified and recruited, regardless of whether they had committed a crime or not, and then managed by the security agencies. Especially after 2009 they were handed over completely to the security forces, and especially to the IRGC."

This co-opting of Iranians into the suppression of their fellow citizens saw Hossein Hamedani promoted after 2009, also becoming the head of the IRGC’s Mohammad Rasulullah Division in Tehran. In a subsequent interview, he publicly admitted to his role in the scheme: “We had identified and monitored 5,000 violent criminals and firstly, ordered all of them to stay at home when there was any protest.

“But later I thought: why not employ these thugs? So I organized them into three regiments to engage with the protesters on our behalf. They proved me right ... if we want to train mujahids [fighters], we need these types of violent people who are not afraid of a few drops of blood.”

Mahmoudian said those pressed into the service of the IRGC had still had to be provided for in times when there was no unrest on the streets. For this reason, he said, in the early 2010s many were pushed to join the Esteghlal and Persepolis football clubs, both to promote them and to keep an eye on other fans. “As an Esteghlal fan who regularly went to the stadium to watch the games for years,” he said, “I saw with my own eyes that they never hesitated stories and films, not without the coordination of club managers.

"These people were implementing the same model of ‘nurturing behavior’ [as the IRGC], and distributing money among novices on the stands.” He added that in his capacity as a lawyer, he had represented the families of some of those arrested for ‘mob’ behavior during the security crackdown on the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front in June 2019. “I knew the faces of these people well,” he said, “and I personally knew some of them, both from the attack on the Participation Front and the suppression [of protests]."

In Tabriz, the home of Tractor FC, Mahmoudian said, the security agencies had also sought to stir up ethnic tensions in the aftermath of 2009. “There was a constant effort from Tehran to contain the energy on the stands and deter people from joining nationwide protests. Since the IRGC took over Tractor, we faced a wave of separatist and ethnic slogans. They repeatedly used a pseudonym for the Persian Gulf – the ‘Arabian Gulf’ – set fire to the Iranian flag and brought the Azerbaijani flag into the stadium. This all happened with the green light of the security agencies, so as to discharge people’s energy inside the stadiums.

 Taghi Rahmani: Iranian Football Went from Government-Owned to Security Agencies-Owned

Taghi Rahmani, a journalist and political activist born in 1959 who spent years behind bars in the Islamic Republic between 1981 and 2005, was another guest during the IranWire Clubhouse discussion. Asked to compare the days he spent at Tehran’s biggest football stadiums before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, he said that at the time he first became a Taj fan, “it was the heyday of Iranian football”.

In reality, Rahmani said, Iranian football has not been truly independent since 1960 – but under the Shah there was more room to breathe. "The course that club management has gone through in Iran has respectively been government-, military- and security-driven, from the Pahlavi era through to the present day. I saw [top Iranian footballer Mohammad] Panjali coming to play football with Majid Ghodoussi in Evin Prison. I also saw the director of Evin Prison become a member of the board of Esteghlal FC."

He added: "Before the revolution, neither the community nor the stadiums were so political. Savak [the Shah’s secret police] was never afraid of the stands, so it did not control them. The teams were under government control during the Shah's reign, but after the revolution, both the stadiums and the teams came under the control of the security forces.

"Let me give you an example. Before the revolution, the Persepolis fans had a café of their own where they could gather. Now the government is blocking these get-togethers. We no longer have a single civic sports club in Iran. Before the revolution, the Shahin club was really popular, but it was dissolved."

The game itself, he said, went through a “golden age” from 1985 to 1988, with Iran’s national team shining in Asia during precisely the same period in which the state was paying little attention to football. "The important thing,” he added, “is that the people of Iran, both before the revolution and today, loved football and clubs. But their hearts were never at peace with the managers. I never got the sense at Amjadieh [now the Shiroudi Stadium] that fans had a stake in or feeling of ownership of their team; that feeling that fans of Juventus or Barcelona fans have.”

Ali Daei and the Unmasking of Saipa's Director-General

The Clubhouse discussion also pivoted to world-famous Iranian footballer Ali Daei, who together with Cristiano Ronaldo holds the record for the most international goals in men’s football. Daei scored a staggering 109 goals for Iran in 149 appearances between 1993 and 2006 – but this achievement did not stop him from being fired by Saipa FC in 2019 after he criticized the club’s management.

In an interview in May that year, Daei had shed light on the shadowy past of the club’s director-general, who was then going by the name Mostafa Modaber. In fact, Modaber was Ghafour Derjezi, a former member of the IRGC who is widely thought to have played a role in the 1989 assassination of Abdol Rahman Ghassemlou, then the secretary-general of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI), as well as other opposition figures.

“Mostafa Modaber means nothing to me,” Daei said. “I do not know any real person by that name. I have known him as Sardar Ghafour since he was the head of security at Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s intelligence section.

“It was interesting to me that in a TV program, he introduced himself as Modaber. The tone of voice was familiar and I realized this was Sardar Ghafour. How did he become Mostafa Modaber? I wish someone from the registry office was here to ask him.”

Daei was instantly sacked from his role as Saipa head coach. He has not returned to football since.

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