“Alcohol is banned, British nationals are regularly picked up on spurious charges of spying and only two weeks ago female football fans were pepper-sprayed for having the cheek to attend an international match. And now, Iran says it is ready to host thousands of England supporters a short hop from Qatar for this year’s World Cup.”
This is what British newspaper The Times had to say after it Iranian officials said they might offer to waive visa requirements for British nationals who stay on Kish Island during the 2022 World Cup. The announcement came amid claims that Doha, the capital of Qatar and a 40-minute flight away, was struggling to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of extra visitors due to descend on the city in November.
The offer could be extended to American football fans and others whose teams have qualified. Both the English and US national teams are in Group B together with Iran.
So far, the Qatari authorities are thought not to be interested – and nor have they been for the last two years, throughout the Iranian government’s strained efforts to present Iran as a co-organizer of the World Cup.
Iran and Qatar: A One-Way Agreement
In October 2021, Saeed Mohammad, advisor to the president of the Islamic Republic and secretary of the Supreme Council of Iranian Free Zones, together with Shahaboddin Azizi Khadem, the then-President of Iran Football Federation, signed a letter of understanding on “co-hosting the Qatar World Cup”.
The agreement was signed without the presence of any Qatari official. It also wasn’t the first time Iranian officials had unilaterally tried to present Iran as a co-host. The previous November, Bahram Afsharzadeh, the secretary of Kish Island’s Supreme Sports Council, had announced: “We have reached the necessary agreements with our selected sponsors to build what is required on Kish Island. Next week the related cooperation agreements will be signed so we can officially start taking cooperative action with the Qataris.”
It rapidly became apparent that no such cooperation was planned. When Afsharzadeh was later asked about Qatar’s apparent opposition to the idea, he retorted: “Do they get a say in this?”
Gholam Hossein Mozaffari, the former CEO and chairman of Kish Free Zone Organization, had been more explicit still. “We intend to be the host of World Cup teams on Kish,” he said in late 2019. “Domestic investors, with the cooperation of international companies, can build at least four sports complexes.
“Of course, no Qatar World Cup competition is to be held on Kish, but we have succeeded in spending at least one billion tomans to prepare the island for team training and hosting fans.”
It is not clear where Mozaffari’s “at least one billion tomans” was spent, and the matter has not been mentioned in Iranian media since. On January 14, 2021, Mozaffari also created an 11-membe body by the name of “Coordination Council for 2022 Qatar World Cup”.
The Eventual Deal Struck
In an interview with the Russian news agency RIA Novosti on November 14, 2018, Hassan Al-Thawadi, the chairman of the 2022 FIFA World Cup LLC, categorically rejected the idea that Qatar would work with neighboring countries to co-host, accommodate the teams, or look after the ticket-holders. Qatar, he said, was “quite capable” of doing this alone and neither its government nor FIFA had any intention of supporting co-hosts.
Nevertheless, in an interview not two weeks ago, Iranian Sports Minister Hamid Sajjadi once again claimed that Kish Island would host football fans from around the world during the 2022 World Cup.
Minister of Roads and Urban Development Rostam Ghasemi then claimed that, on “special orders of the President”, he would meet with Qatar’s Minister of Transport and Communication Jassim bin Saif al-Sulaiti to discuss the matter.
Five days earlier on April 4, in a message to Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Ebrahim Raisi had announced Iran’s readiness to “help Qatar” in hosting World Cup competitions.
Rostam Ghasemi and Jassim bin Saif al-Sulaiti did meet on Kish Island. The result, however, was underwhelming, as described by Majid Kouhestani, the sports editor of Tabnak news agency: “The achievement of the visit of Qatar’s minister of transport to our country to sign a letter of understanding for the World Cup was that Iranian spectators would be accommodated in Kish, they would fly to Qatar to watch each game played by our national team, and then would then fly back to Kish.”
So far then, only Iranians will be accommodated in Iran. It appeared – and had for some time – that Qatar was not in need of much help. According to an October 2021 report that was even picked up by Iranian media, by that time Qatar had already spent more than $200bn preparing for the World Cup, including $45bn building a new city called Lusail on the coast of Persian Gulf that could accommodate 250,000 people. In this hyper-modern complex, even garbage collection is to be done automatically without the need for extra manpower.
Just Tourism Money?
As The Times’s report indicates, there is some justified unease among Westerners about traveling to Iran. European governments have repeatedly warned their citizens to exercise caution when planning to visit the country, with French and German authorities explicitly telling dual nationals they run the risk of being arrested. The UK government took Iran off its list of tourist designations designated “safe” after number of British citizens were taken hostage.
On April 9, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported the Foreign Ministry’s visa waivers plan. According to the details so far released, citizens of World Cup qualifying countries can request a free visa for one or two entries into Iran during the contest, and can request visas allowing them to stay in Iran for 20 days over two months.
The temptations of a free visa aside, it will be hard for fans in the know to ignore statements made by certain officials and people close to the government of the Islamic Republic about its endemic, sadly lucrative practice of taking hostages.
In a TV debate in June 2021, Mohsen Rezaei, a former senior IRGC commander who was then running for president, said: “I am a soldier and if America threatens us I’ll threaten them with taking hostages. What, you expect us to kill their soldiers?”
This wasn’t the first mention of the practice, even just by Rezaei. In 2015, in a TV interview during his tenure as Secretary of the Expediency Council, Rezaei said: “If the Americans hold bad intentions towards Iran and are thinking of a military attack, be sure that in the first week, we’d take at least 1,000 Americans prisoners and they’d have to pay a few billion dollars to free each one. Then our economic problems might be solved too.”
The same Mohsen Rezaei is now Raisi’s Vice President for Economic Affairs.
Likewise, Hassan Abbasi, a Revolutionary Guards spokesman who calls himself a “strategist”, has confessed that he suggested to the IRGC they create income for the government by taking American soldiers or citizens hostage. “Do you want to solve the sanctions problem?” he had said in a leaked recording. “Our naval forces should take 10 or 20 Americans as hostage every month. For each one of them, we should get $1 billion. If we get $1 billion per week, and the year has around 50 weeks, that’s at least $50bn.”