Hossein Souri, head of Iran’s National Boxing Federation, said in November 2022 he was refusing to return to his country in support of anti-government protests that had swept the country for weeks. Souri made the announcement while in Spain for a youth boxing tournament. Two young Iranian boxers participating in the competition also asked for asylum.
In an interview with IranWire, Souri talked about the problems he faced as a citizen, as an athlete and as the Islamic Republic’s boxing boss in a country where ethnic minorities face widespread discrimination and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) see sports as a form of social control to be exploited in pursuit of domestic policy objectives.
Souri is from the south-eastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan, home to Iran's Sunni Baluch minority of up to 2 million people. Human rights groups say the Baluch community and other ethnic minorities in Iran face discrimination in the judicial system and their everyday lives, with the authorities curtailing their access to education, employment, adequate housing and political office.
“I believed boxing was the right Choice to Get my Rights”
“I am Hossein Souri, a law graduate and PhD student,” he said. “I started boxing in 1989 and in 1992 I was accepted into the National Youth Boxing Team. I believed boxing was the right choice to get my rights. Sometimes, one feels many pains and wants to get rid of these feelings. Boxing helped me a lot in this regard.”
“One day I was walking from Morad Gholi Khan School in Zahedan toward my home,” Souri continued. “I was in Baluch clothing and my friend was wearing the customary clothing of most Iranians. The patrol arrived and treated me very differently than my friend. They stopped us and shaved the top of my head.”
After Souri earned his university degree and finished mandatory military service, he got an interview for a job at a government organization. “The first question that they asked me was, ‘Are you a Shia or a Sunni?’ All Baluchis have had the same experience. This question was the first blot on my career.”
In 2004, Souri was elected as the head of Sistan and Baluchistan’s boxing board.
“My goal was to make Sistan’s boxing team the national champion. My only objective was to change the existing black and negative image of the Baluch people. During that decade, if you remember, they were making strange movies such as The Invasion and The Senator. All these movies produced by the order of the regime gave a negative view of the province…It created an atmosphere in which we didn’t dare to walk in the streets of other cities in Baluchi clothing.”
“The whole Structure of Iranian Sports is Politicized”
Souri was first elected to the helm of the boxing federation in 2017, when Iranian sports had already become increasingly politicized. Most sports bodies had been taken over by political or security-military organizations, with IRGC members holding the top positions.
“The whole structure of Iranian sports is politicized,” Souri said. “You can clearly see the interference of institutions that have nothing to do with sports…For the security establishment, the priority is that the Islamic Republic’s ideology is followed in the field of sports. To put it simply, no sports manager can implement his own ideas and must follow whatever has been dictated to him. As heads of the federations, we had to do what they told us to do.”
Souri said that when he was a candidate for the presidency of the boxing federation, he was summoned several times by the security agencies.
“I would tell them, ‘Look, compare my record with the time before me. We got the first boxing medals, both before and after the  revolution, with a Baluch kid’…And I heard exactly this response: ‘It makes no difference to us whether we get medals or not. What difference does it make whether you become an Olympic champion or rank last? What is important to us is how well you advance the goals of the Islamic Republic.’”
Souri replaced Ahmad Nategh Nouri as the president of the boxing federation. Nategh Nouri, a conservative politician, had held the position for 30 years.
“For six months after I was appointed as the head of boxing federation, the previous team refused to leave the federation’s offices,” Souri said. “I put my whole life inside an attaché case and a laptop. I took all the letters with me from room to room and from building to building. Mr. Nategh Nouri’s team ignored whatever we said.”
“Even after they left after six months sabotage from within the organization started. When I was moving a glass of water it was reported to higher-ups as ‘insulting the sacred’,” he said, adding, “I made the biggest mistake of my life because I was so strictly supervised that I had no independence whatsoever.”
When asked whether a non-Baluch would have faced similar hurdles, Souri answered: “I can tell you categorically that somebody from Mazandaran, Shiraz or Isfahan would not have been under so much pressure if he had been appointed instead of me.”
“’Ethnic apartheid’ is how I call what’s going on in Sistan and Baluchistan. The Baluch people are the most underprivileged group in society in every aspect: health, housing, education, sports and the distribution of wealth.”
“You Don’t Appreciate the Regime and It Will Hold you Accountable.”
Asked when Souri decide to seek refuge outside Iran, he said Zahedan’s “Bloody Friday” was a turning point. On September 30 in the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan, security forces killed nearly 100 people after firing live ammunition, metal pellets and teargas at protesters, bystanders and worshippers.
“If, at the time, they had accepted that something wrong had happened and put the culprits on trial, perhaps I wouldn’t be in this situation right now. But they said that [the protesters] were secessionists. Many of those killed were my relatives or my friends.”
After the massacre, Souri said he posted a story on social media which said: ‘You’re the secessionist because you’re the one who cut off part of the country.’
Souri started feeling increasing pressure from the authorities. When he was about to travel to Spain, he received a threatening message that said, “Unfortunately, you don’t appreciate the regime and the regime will hold you accountable.”
Souri said the message was sent from the Intelligence Ministry through WhatsApp.