Iran Feeds World Cup as Players in Silent Solidarity on Anthem
Iranian players stand in silence during the playing of their national anthem at the FIFA World Cup match between England and Iran at Khalifa International Stadium, Nov. 21, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Mohammad Karamali/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Iran Feeds World Cup as Players in Silent Solidarity on Anthem

Tehran’s strong trade ties with Doha are a result of the Gulf embargo on Qatar between 2017 and 2021

Iran is exporting 250 tons of food and agricultural products to Qatar daily during the FIFA World Cup, Alireza Peyman-Pak, the head of Iran’s Trade Promotion Organization (TPO), said on Saturday.

Peyman-Pak added in a statement that this agreement, made by officials from both countries during an exhibition in Doha last month, was part of Tehran’s efforts to enhance trade with its neighbors. The TPO announced that Doha and Tehran aimed to reach a yearly trade value of $3 billion by 2025.

Though Iran is playing a major role in the supply of food for the tournament, its national soccer team chose to stay silent while the country’s national anthem was played at the beginning of its game against England on Monday.

“We have to accept that the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy. We are here but it does not mean we should not be their voice [for the protesters at home],” said Iran’s defender Ehsan Hajsafi, at a press conference on Sunday.

Dr. Roxane Farmanfarmaian, director of International Studies and Global Politics at the University of Cambridge Institute for Continuing Education, and a senior research fellow at King’s College London, told The Media Line this could lead to the players’ arrest and imprisonment on their arrival in Iran.

“The players are very brave to have chosen to stay silent, but the outcome may be very harsh,” she said, adding that many Iranian athletes competing abroad have expressed support for the protests in different ways and have been arrested upon their return to Iran.

Farmanfarmaian says that, while the Iranian government is attempting to show that everything is normal, the refusal to sing the anthem is “sending the government a strong signal that its people are ready to be imprisoned, and possibly even die, to fight for their rights, and that they are rejecting the government’s tactics.”

Several actors in the international community have urged FIFA to ban Iran from participating in the World Cup. Yet, while its participation stokes international controversy and its team members have sent a bold anti-government message, Iran has strong commercial ties with Qatar.

The main boost to Qatari-Iranian trade relations happened after the 2017 Gulf diplomatic crisis, in which Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, later joined by Jordan, cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, claiming that it sponsored terrorism by funding Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and keeping close ties with Iran. Countries in the Saudi-led coalition banned Qatari transport from using their airspace and sea routes, and crossing Qatar’s only terrestrial border, into Saudi Arabia.

The embargo period led Qatar to restore full ties and boost trade with Iran. Later, in 2021, the Saudi-led coalition and Qatar reestablished relations with the signing of the AlUla Declaration, and the transportation embargo came to an end.

Qatar is a peninsula country that has almost no agriculture of its own, so even before the World Cup, it imported most of its food, said Farmanfarmaian.

Qatar, she said, has a long-standing agreement to import food from Iran, which stepped in when the 2017 Gulf Cooperation Council embargo cut off Qatar from its normal access to transport. At the time, she added, “Iran sent in milk and other foodstuffs to ensure Qatar didn’t face a crisis, airlifting a lot of food across the Gulf to help it out.”

Hasan Alhasan, research fellow for Middle East policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain, added that since the 2017 Gulf rift, Qatar has deepened its relationship with Iran as an insurance policy, in case its relations with its Arab Gulf neighbors sour again.

“Qatar needs to keep this relationship on food security alive to avoid relying too heavily on its Arab Gulf neighbors,” he told The Media Line.

Iran now faces wide international condemnation and sanctions applied by the West, due to the country’s nuclear program and its response to the countrywide protests against the regime. This has created an ongoing, serious economic crisis for the Islamic Republic.

While the additional export opportunity is likely to benefit the Iranian economy, it is not going to be a significant lifeline, said Jack A. Kennedy, a research and analysis associate director covering the Middle East and North Africa desk of the S&P Global Market Intelligence Country Risk and Forecasting team.

“The outside influence of hydrocarbon exports and the internal employment for heavy industries are more important,” he told The Media Line.

However, Farmanfarmaian says that, though exports to the World Cup are not a major economic factor, “they are an important addition to an economy that is suffering enormously from sanctions; every bit helps.”

She said that, according to Iran’s Customs Administration, the country’s exports of agricultural products and food, including fish and livestock, stood at $805 million in the two months between March 21 and May 21. These, she says, are some of the largest figures she is aware of.

Additionally, she said that Iran exports agricultural products not only to Qatar but also to Iraq, China, the UAE, Turkey, and India.

Kennedy, from S&P Global, says there may be some minor criticism from Western political actors but “food exports and agricultural produce are not covered under existing sanctions and would have little impact in undermining Iran’s ongoing nuclear program.”

“If there is continued criticism, it is likely to take place behind closed doors,” he added.

Farmanfarmaian also believes there could be some criticism but there is little the West can do on the issue.

“The deliveries are already being made and this is not a new arrangement. Western countries would have been fully aware of this export agreement prior to arriving at the World Cup,” she noted.

Additionally, she says that Qatar is unlikely to compromise this set of trade agreements with Iran due to the unrest in the country. “It recognized during the embargo that it needed to diversify its imports. A country that is close by is an asset in this regard,” she added.

Saudi Arabia may find it more difficult to accept that Iran is taking such a role in supplying food to the World Cup, says Farmanfarmaian. “But like Western nations, it is aware that the arrangement is long-standing and was created as a result of the GCC embargo, which Saudi Arabia led.”

Kennedy adds that in any case, the Gulf states are not in a strong position to provide Qatar with the necessary additional food supplies for the tournament, and it is unlikely that this relationship is going to seriously jeopardize the AlUla agreement, which restored Qatar’s ties with the Arab Gulf.

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