It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

A U.S.-Iranian Standoff at the World Cup—and Beyond

Off the playing field, Iran’s protests and ongoing uranium enrichment have heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, and , a columnist at Foreign Policy and deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Mehrdad Minavand of Iran in action during the World Cup first round match against the United States at the Stade Gerland in Lyon, France on June 21, 1998. Iran won the match 2-1.
Mehrdad Minavand of Iran in action during the World Cup first round match against the United States at the Stade Gerland in Lyon, France on June 21, 1998. Iran won the match 2-1.
Mehrdad Minavand of Iran in action during the World Cup first round match against the United States at the Stade Gerland in Lyon, France on June 21, 1998. Iran won the match 2-1. Stu Forster/Allsport
It's Debatable

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! How was your Thanksgiving? Anything, in particular, you are thankful for this year?

Emma Ashford: Too much turkey and stuffing! It’s a miracle I managed to waddle to the computer to join this conversation.

MK: I am not sure that roasted Turkey is the greatest dish ever, but it was nice to see family and to reflect on everything I am thankful for—like American power, the rules-based international system, NATO’s resolve in pushing the other Turkey to ratify its expansion, and the privilege of writing this column with you!

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! How was your Thanksgiving? Anything, in particular, you are thankful for this year?

Emma Ashford: Too much turkey and stuffing! It’s a miracle I managed to waddle to the computer to join this conversation.

MK: I am not sure that roasted Turkey is the greatest dish ever, but it was nice to see family and to reflect on everything I am thankful for—like American power, the rules-based international system, NATO’s resolve in pushing the other Turkey to ratify its expansion, and the privilege of writing this column with you!

Where should we start this week?

EA: Well, I know most Americans will be focused on “football” this Thanksgiving, which is what we rather confusingly call a game where the players mostly use their hands. Although many Americans, especially in the center of the country, seem oddly obsessed with a collegiate rivalry between the University of Michigan and Ohio State University everywhere else in the world, people are glued to the football World Cup—soccer in American terms—in the hopes of seeing their nation triumph. [Ed.: Hail to the Victors!]

I know this isn’t a sports column, but there’s always an interesting geopolitical side to these big global competitions, and this year, host Qatar is being accused of “sportswashing,” treating migrant laborers badly, and FIFA itself is cracking down on teams that try to make political statements on the field. Have you been following any of this?

MK: I have. There are clear political and cultural divisions between the world’s best soccer teams and their fans (mostly from Western Europe) traveling for a major sporting tournament hosted by a culturally conservative Muslim monarchy. Fans have been turned away for wearing gay pride T-shirts, players prohibited from wearing “One Love” armbands, and beer has been banned in and around stadiums.

That really ruins it for many fans, for whom the game is the mere backdrop for their drinking session!

It seems like one solution going forward would be to stop rewarding autocracies with major sporting events (the last World Cup was held in Russia), but the current tensions are likely here to stay for the duration of the games.

What are you watching—other than the action on the field?

EA: It’s an intriguing problem for those who enjoy big international sporting events like the Olympics or World Cup. The data is pretty clear that they’re increasingly being hosted by autocracies, and the countries that apply to host are overwhelmingly autocracies too.

The Olympic selection committee for the 2022 Winter Games, for example, only had a choice of autocracies after all the democracies withdrew early in the selection process. It’s not just sports either! There was controversy in Europe a few years back about Azerbaijan hosting the Eurovision Song Contest despite its abysmal human rights record and atrocities in the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

The reason for this shift is that these events are actually quite bad for the states that host them. Again, there’s fairly clear economic research that hosting the Olympics doesn’t actually boost a state’s economy in the long term. So for democracies, it’s a question of taxes and popularity. That leaves just the autocracies, which are happy to spend money on a dictator’s vanity project.

So I suspect this kind of tension between the fans and host governments will be the norm going forward.

Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to make China a soccer powerhouse by 2050, but the country did not even qualify for this tournament.

MK: That’s interesting. I think the trend of autocracies hosting these events is also because this is the only way these countries can participate—their teams are not good enough to qualify on merit alone. Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to make China a soccer powerhouse by 2050, but the country did not even qualify for this tournament; 28 out of the 32 World Cup qualifiers are either free or partly free, according to Freedom House rankings (which counts England and Wales together as parts of the United Kingdom). Host country Qatar is among the other four. They would have never qualified otherwise and needed to recruit foreign players to fill out their squad because so few Qataris play the game at a high level.

We discussed this back during the Olympics, but at least since the end of the Cold War, democratic countries tend to excel in international athletic competitions.

EA: I mean, Russia only got into the last World Cup by hosting, though it did make it to the quarterfinals. But given the Soviet legacy in sports, you’d expect that autocracies might do better than democracies, particularly in niche sports.

The Iranian team decided to protest their own government by refusing to sing the national anthem.

It’s not just a question of regime type either. FIFA is increasingly viewed as corrupt, as is the International Olympic Committee. With a bidding process for these big events that requires committees to visit all hosts and build relationships with them, it’s practically an invitation for bribery. Americans tend to view these events as something that brings the world together around shared interests, but the bidding and hosting process has a corrosive impact globally, helping to build and strengthen international kleptocratic networks.

Of course, the other big controversy that FIFA failed to smother relates directly to a growing geopolitical problem: The Iranian team decided to protest their own government by refusing to sing the national anthem, as mass demonstrations against the regime continue to grow. I’ve been surprised by how little attention this is getting in Washington.

MK: Just one last comment on the World Cup. Our commentary on the political aspects were rightly pretty negative, but I don’t want our readers to think we are sticks in the mud. Watching Lionel Messi’s first goal in his last World Cup was a thing of beauty, for example—even if his paid promotion of Saudi Arabia was distasteful. Darn, letting politics intervene again. It would just be nice to enjoy the games without all the political baggage. The 2026 tournament to be held in North America should be easier to enjoy.

EA: Oh, you’re right. I’m just sore because Scotland didn’t qualify this year. Guess I’ll just have to fall back on rooting for anyone who plays England. Even Iran.

MK: Ha. Well, to return to your earlier point, I might root for Iran’s team if it keeps taking a stand against its own government. The enemy of my enemy…

I am surprised by many things there: that the protests are still going strong two months later, that the Biden administration and the international community are not taking a stronger stand, and that the world is also largely overlooking that Iran is passing the point of no return and becoming a de facto nuclear-armed power. Outside experts were previously estimating that Iran’s nuclear breakout time is basically zero, and a new International Atomic Energy Agency report shows that Iran is now enriching uranium up to 60 percent (a hair’s breadth from weapons-grade) at its underground Fordow facility.

The sad truth about regime change in Iran has always been that the clerics were willing to kill to stay in power, and the Iranian people were not willing to die in large enough numbers to take power.

Is this time different?

EA: I don’t know. Perhaps. And that is, as you say, extremely surprising. These protests first started after the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, in state custody. She had been arrested for failure to adhere to the regime’s strict rules on headscarves and was then allegedly beaten to death; she died in the custody of the nation’s so-called morality police. It prompted a series of mass demonstrations, and two months later, they’re bigger than ever. And that is in spite of the regime using relatively brutal methods to crack down on these gatherings, even using live ammunition on young women.

But my money is still not on regime change in Iran. I’m hopeful that there might be change, but I suspect that the regime may try to offer internal reforms to appease the protesters. There’s already been reporting that Iranian officials have reached out to prominent moderate and reform-minded elites, suggesting that they might be open to some compromise. That might move Iran closer to being a full democracy at last, but it probably wouldn’t be full regime change.

MK: I don’t know what to think. I would love to see a better government in Tehran that respects the human rights of its people and pursues a more moderate foreign policy. There have been major protests in the past, like the 2009 Green Movement, but this time does feel different. Maybe I will join you in being cautiously hopeful.

Where I suspect we part ways, however, is on what the United States and the rest of the world should be doing about it. The free world should clearly state its preference for a change of government in Tehran and take concrete steps to weaken the Islamic Republic and support the protest movement—beyond removing the Iranian Revolution’s symbol from the national flag as displayed on the U.S. men’s national team’s Twitter account.

Am I right?

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has largely been content to let civilians rule Iran, but they might consider a coup if the turmoil got worse.

EA: That just raises more questions. First, what steps are you advocating? The West already has Iran under massive sanctions. In fact, Iran’s economic turmoil is part of what is helping to motivate these protests. Do you want military action? That seems extremely unwise, not least because it would probably help to delegitimize the protests among a segment of the Iranian population. It could also prompt a military coup inside Iran. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has largely been content to let civilians rule Iran, but they might consider a coup if the turmoil got worse or the threat of outside intervention grows. That might be the worst of all worlds.

Second question: How would you feel about a more democratic Iran whose foreign policy didn’t actually change substantially? I’ll remind you that Iran’s nuclear program, for example, has fairly widespread support among the Iranian population. I think there’s decent odds that even a more democratic Iran would still pursue a foreign policy you dislike.

MK: Where to begin? First, there is more the United States and its allies could do to support the protest movement. For example, they could instruct the protest movement’s leaders on the most effective tactics of nonviolent civil resistance.

EA: That seems a little presumptuous, but OK. I doubt the U.S. government knows more about civil resistance than they do, and the internet is a wonderful thing. Did you know I can download The Anarchist Cookbook from the comfort of my living room?

MK: Very funny. The protesters in Iran are brave, but that does not mean they are experts in nonviolent civil resistance. There has been a lot of research into what works and what does not, and organizations like the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict teach courses to nonviolent organizers. Sharing some of that knowledge could be helpful in this case.

In addition, there are ways to increase pressure on the regime. Iran is still exporting around 1 million barrels of oil per day, but that could be brought down through tougher enforcement measures and more aggressive use of secondary sanctions.

Western nations could also message regime insiders that they will be watched and that if the regime falls, they will be held responsible for human rights violations—but that they will be rewarded if they refuse to participate in the crackdown.

EA: Under normal circumstances, that would be costly and difficult. Today, where the United States and Europe are already trying to remove Russian oil from the market—or at least cap Russian revenues—that would likely cause a massive spike in global oil prices.

MK: Another good data point about why the free world should reorient critical supply chains away from hostile dictators.

EA: The messaging to the regime might be more effective—particularly the reward part—but I think officials are already doing some of that publicly. I suppose they could privately offer sanctions concessions in exchange for domestic liberalization, but it’s a long shot.

Political revolutions are generally the result of a combination of domestic turmoil and international security pressure.

MK: They could supplement public messaging with private text messages directly to individuals’ cell phones, for example, if they are not doing that already.

And military action may ultimately be necessary to deal with the nuclear program as U.S. President Joe Biden has stated several times. But I think the results might be the opposite of what you suggest. With everything else on their plates, I doubt the regime would welcome a military crisis on top. You are fond of citing political science scholarship, and sociologist Theda Skocpol’s classic study finds that political revolutions are generally the result of a combination of domestic turmoil and international security pressure.

I will take my chances with a change of government in Tehran. The supreme leader is pretty nasty and beholden to the IRGC already. The regime sponsors terror, builds illegal nuclear and missile programs, and kills its own people in large numbers. I cannot imagine that a military dictatorship or a more democratic government in Iran could be much worse, and it would probably be better.

EA: There’s already an immense amount of international pressure on Tehran. It doesn’t take military intervention to do that. I’m generally of the opinion that it’s better to let these things happen in their own time, as political change from within a country is probably going to produce a more durable outcome than one imposed—or at least assisted—from outside.

But it’s time to wrap up. Brazil is playing Switzerland in the World Cup today as we write, and I want to be sure I catch the end. Like a good neutral fan, I’ll be rooting for Switzerland. Will you join me? [Ed.: Too late. Never root against Brazil]

MK: Nah. I will be rooting for USA! USA! USA!

EA: Just try to remember that football is the one where you don’t use your hands.

MK: I’ll keep that in mind. Other than that and out of habit, I will pull for whichever team you oppose.

Emma Ashford is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is a columnist at Foreign Policy and deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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