This week, two separate, telling statements were issued by the Iranian judiciary and an MP within 48 hours of each other. First, the Islamic Republic has imprisoned a female journalist named Mahtab Gholizadeh for “inciting corruption by trying to enter the [football] stadium”, “conspiracy against national security” and “propaganda against the regime”. Second, in an interview with the IRGC-aligned Tasnim News Agency, conservative MP Ahmad Rastineh said it would be “impossible” to change the statute of the Iranian Football Federation to separate it from the state.
FIFA has given Iran multiple ultimatums to resolve both of these issues. Based on the latest missive, the Federation has until the next World Cup Qualifier in January 2022 to allow female spectators into Azadi Stadium, after yet another year of fits and starts. In a letter to the Federation in October 2020, the global football body also gave a deadline of March 2022 for the Federation to affirm its status as an independent NGO.
Last year, following repeated requests from FIFA, the Federation’s charter was amended to describe it as both a "public" and "non-governmental" institution. FIFA pointed out that in Iran’s administrative law, “public” also meant state-owned. Head of Member Associations Véron Musengo-Omba reiterated that only “an institution with independent legal personality” would be recognized by FIFA.
Both state-controlled media and some Iranian sporting officials have claimed that such a change to the Federation’s constitution would be against domestic law – even though Shahaboddin Azizi Khadem, the Federation’s president since February 2021, has urgently called for FIFA’s amendments to be approved by parliament and the Guardian Council. In his interview with Tasnim on Monday, Ahmad Rastineh also claimed that such an amendment would be “illegal”. He added: "Mr. Azizi Khadem should increase his legal literacy.”
The comments came at a time of heightened sensitivity on the part of FIFA and other bodies to the overt politicization of Iranian sports. Mahtab Gholizadeh was charged in Branch 2 of Evin Prison Court on Saturday, shortly after a member of the parliament’s Cultural Committee had poured cold water on the notion of women being allowed into stadiums. Citing a 1987 fatwa by Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Hossein Jalali said any softening of Tehran’s stance would be “against Islamic law”.
If FIFA’s conditions are not met early next year, there is a chance the Iranian Football Federation will be suspended and Team Melli excluded from international matches. MPs and the Iranian judiciary are fully aware of this, but have so far responded only with revolt and belligerence.