The Iran Game

As the Obama administration takes its first step into the Iran negotiations game, another game today shed a light on Iran's internal negotiations: with its people.

For the first time since the Iranian revolution -- and perhaps for the first time ever in Iran -- a professional men vs women soccer match took place on January 20th, only to be lambasted by the authorities today when cell phone videos proved the offense had indeed occurred.

But the point is that it happened and it is indicative of two simple facts of life under the Islamic Republic today: men and women unapologetically enjoy each other's company, and, even as intimidation and penalties loom, they're quite public about their desire to live contemporary, uninvaded lives.

The whole issue of women and sports in Iran took a surprising turn just after Ahmadinejad was elected president. At that time Ahmadinejad was being branded by the Western media as a scary conservative who beat out the (Western) preferred candidate (and former President) Ali Rafsanjani, a cleric who had himself been re-branded just a few years after making international business headlines as a man who had profited considerably from his powerful government roles over the years. In April 2006, one of Ahmadinejad's early announcements as president was that women should be allowed into soccer stadiums -- their presence would bring the cursing and rowdiness under control in the stadiums, he'd argued.

With that statement, Ahmadinejad confounded his critics, both in Iran and abroad, and started down a path as Iran's most media savvy President ever. Some say he even cleverly timed his announcement to coincide with the international buzz for prize-winning director Jafar Panahi's film "Offside" -- a film about women disguising themselves as men to enter a soccer stadium in Tehran. He was slammed by the Supreme Leader -- Khamenei -- who decried such argument as foul and maintained that a stadium was no place for a lady. Ahmadinejad backed down -- the Supreme Leader's word is the last word in Iran -- but he had distinguished himself as a man of the people.

Today, as the participants of the historic soccer match suffered fines, suspensions and other inconveniences, Ahmadinejad was silent. Women had not only been in Tehran's Marghoobkar stadium on January 20th, but had actually played soccer in it. But like an echo of his waning popularity, Ahmadinejad's voice was distant this time.

Perhaps this soccer game was prescient -- a sign not only of how far things have come in Iran, but, like it or not, how far they intend to go. Obama's team would do well to take notice as they head into the new season.