Saudi Arabia is using soccer and its influence in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to expand its campaign to isolate Iran, complicate Iran's return to the international fold in the wake of the nuclear agreement, strengthen Iranian hardliners in advance of next month's crucial elections in the Islamic republic, and deflect attention from mounting criticism of the kingdom's human rights record.
As Saudi Arabia is fighting a proxy war against Iran in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, it is determined not to allow Iran free regional reign. By creating the crisis, Saudi Arabia also hopes to disrupt the warming relations between Iran and the U.S., which it views as contrary to its interests. In addition, Saudi Arabia hopes to undermine the EU's drive for rapprochement with Iran, as it otherwise has the potential of becoming the largest trading partner with the EU.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani suffered in the run-up to crucial elections in early 2016 what amounted to at least a symbolic defeat when state-run television banned Iran's most popular soccer program from running an interview with his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on soccer and politics.
Iranians may say the International Atomic Energy Agency came to wrong conclusions on several points. Just because some of what the Iranian government did was "relevant" to work on nuclear weapons doesn't mean that the work actually was aimed at making them. But now that the IAEA has made its assessment, the justification for extra vigilance and continuing concern about Iran's nuclear intentions should be clear to all.