Yesterday Fars News Agency, which is owned by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, laid into the football star Ali Karimi for social media posts of his supporting the ongoing demonstrations in Iran.
The agency’s official website appeared to be down on Friday morning, potentially due to the wide-ranging hacking campaign launched by Anonymous two days earlier. But the article had again described Karimi as a “rabble-rouser” – the term currently being used by officials in Tehran to dismiss citizens taking part in the protests – and called on Iran’s security and judicial institutions to “deal with” him.
Karimi is one of the small but growing number of well-known public figures in Iran to repeatedly condemn the crimes of the regime going back years, and has been very active online since the death of Mahsa Amini last Friday, posting messages against the Islamic Republic and in support of the protesters. In Tehran last night, a crowd of people were seen chanting his name.
تهران ۳۱ شهریور مردم علی کریمی را تشویق میکنند. pic.twitter.com/lGMV6VBdjK— +۱۵۰۰تصویر (@1500tasvir) September 22, 2022
On Thursday Karimi shared a picture of a series of VPN providers that Iranians could use to get around internet disruption imposed by the government, and another post showing users how to protect their privacy online. On Thursday he also encouraged people to disengage from individuals and institutions in Iran that did not support the protests, and in a single tweet directed at the military that garnered more than 140,000 likes, wrote simply: “A homeland is waiting for you. Don’t let innocent blood be shed.”
A Thorn in the Regime’s Side
Karimi is one of the most prominent figures supporting the protests from inside Iran. He formerly played for Persepolis, Al-Ahli Dubai, Bayern Munich, Qatar SC and Tractor Sazi, and for the Iran national football team from 1998 until his retirement in 2013, and was named Asian Footballer of the Year in 2004.
For more than a decade now, since massive pro-democracy protests first erupted in Iran in 2009, Karimi has been loathed by the Iranian political establishment and the IRGC in particular. Fars has called for his arrest several times in the past.
In June 2009, Karimi and five other players had walked onto the pitch for a game against South Korea wearing green wristbands: a symbol of solidarity with the protesters, whose uprising was known as the Green Movement. They also resisted being told to take them off by the head of the Football Federation at half time.
Since then Karimi has championed a range of causes in Iran linked to social justice, including highlighting the drying-up of Lake Urmia and the ban on women entering football stadiums, condemning the government’s food price hikes and the IRGC’s shooting down of Flight 752, and speaking up for the victims of the Metropol disaster and prisoners on death row.
The IRGC and the Iranian clergy have repeatedly hit back against Karimi by demanding his arrest and, simultaneously, rubbishing his political credentials. This messaging has been amplified by social media accounts that in many cases appeared to be bots.
IRGC and Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) employees have also been ordered to refrain from liking or sharing his posts and stories. On Wednesday this week, IranWire learned Mojtaba Pourbakhsh, a well-known Iranian broadcaster who fronted the Football One program, was fired from the IRIB for reposting a message from Karimi.
The current sensitivity of the Islamic Republic toward Ali Karimi’s posts is largely due to his popularity. You can read more about the bitter wars of words that have unfolded over time in our recent overview, Why the Regime Can’t Stand Ali Karimi.
He is, however, far from the only Iranian footballer or mainstream athlete to have condemned the killing of Mahsa Amini or expressed implicit or explicit support for the ongoing protests. They have been joined by the country's most prominent sports cartoonist, Omar Momani, and non-Iranian football figures like Pep Guardiola.
More journalists and sports personalities have also broken rank this week over the demonstrations. Adel Ferdosipour, a football commentator and TV show host who normally keeps his head down on political matters, posted a video message on Thursday asking the authorities to stop cutting off the internet and refrain from dealing with protestors violently.