Iranian security forces attacked supporters of Traktor Sazi FC, the foremost soccer club in Tabriz, the capital of Iran's Turkic East Azerbaijan province, highlighting mounting ethnic tension in the Islamic republic fuelled by economic hardship resulting from harsh international sanctions and controversial economic policies.
Witnesses and press reports said the attack took place during Traktor Sazi's away fr4om home match earlier this month against Tehran's Persepolis FC in the capital's Azadi stadium. It was not immediately clear whether there were any casualties or whether Traktor supporters, who have a history of political protest in stadiums, were arrested.
Iranian soccer sources and Azerbaijan-based Kabir News reported that Traktor fans took off their shirts in the freezing cold during the match to highlight a lack of aid for victims of an earthquake in Varzagan in August in East Azerbaijan that killed 300 people and wounded some 1,400 others.
Allahverdi Dehghani, a member of the Iranian parliament from the region, accused the government at the time of seeking to conceal the severity of the damage and failing to rush sufficient supplies to the region.
"The top officials of Iranian government promised to help survivors and build new houses for them in less than two months but as of now they have failed to do this job. The conditions are deteriorating in Varzaqan as the winter is coming and people cannot tolerate the cold weather," Kabir News said in reporting the Azadi stadium incident.
Moslem Iskandar Filabi, Sports Commission Chairman of the controversial exile opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), charged in a statement that the Traktor fans were also protesting against government "clerics and thugs" who had been sent to the stadium to encourage them to enter into temporary marriages in a bid to prevent them from staging a protest.
Iran's parliament passed legislation earlier this year authorizing "temporary marriage" as a way of circumventing Islam's ban on extra-marital sex. The law allows men to have as many sexual partners as they want in accordance with Iran's interpretation of Sharia law as long as they qualify as a temporary marriage. Sex outside marriage is punishable in Iran by 100 lashes or, if adulterous, by stoning to death. A temporary marriage can be for a few minutes or several years.
Mr. Filabi said the fans chanted slogans mocking and embarrassing the clerics. "It has been 33 years since the mullahs have committed the worst insults and gravest crimes against Iran's athletes and national heroes, and the entire people in general. Dozens of Iran's national heroes have been murdered by this infamous regime, and quake victims in Azerbaijan, Bam and other cities and towns across the country are in the harshest of conditions, with poverty and hardships engulfing the lives of millions of our compatriots. This is while the mullahs are allocating Iran's enormous wealth for the spread of terrorism, obtaining nuclear weapons, and supporting criminals such as (embattled Syrian leader) Bashar Assad and (Iraqi president) Nouri Maliki," Mr. Filabi said.
The NCRI has lost credibility because of its alliance with ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. It has since fallen out with the post-Saddam government headed by Mr. Maliki.
Analysts said the incident in the Tehran stadium reflected the government's mounting problems as a result of international sanctions imposed on Iran because of its nuclear program. The sanctions have worsened the effect of what many see as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's misguided economic policies.
Parliament last month summoned Mr. Ahmadinejad to explain what legislators called his mismanagement of Iran's response to the sanctions that have reduced oil exports to a dwindle and sparked a collapse of the Iranian riyal.
"As the economy slips, the government becomes more and more worried about separatism. As a result, East Azerbaijan has become increasingly militarized. At times, the entire stadium in Tabriz chants Turkish songs as a protest," said a Baku-based analyst.
The Tehran stadium incident cast a shadow over the soccer playing president's troubled efforts to spruce up his image by associating himself with the country's most popular sport. Mr. Ahmadinejad went as far during a visit to the Iranian national team in October as shaking hands with Ali Karimi, one of several players who wore green wrist bands during a 2009 international match in protest of alleged rigging of presidential elections which returned him to a second term in office.
The visit, Mr. Ahmadinejad's third in recent years, echoed attempts by deposed presidents Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Zine El Abedine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Abdullah Saleh of Yemen to exploit soccer's prestige in a bid to shore up their popularity in the years before their overthrow in 2011.
Soccer represents however for autocrats like Mr. Ahmadinejad a double-edged sword that both offers opportunity and constitutes a threat. The funeral last year of a famous Iranian soccer player in the Azadi stadium turned into a mass protest against his government.
Traktor Sazi fans have been in the forefront of intermittent stadium protests in Iran during the past 18 months, raising the specter of ethnic strife in a bid to achieve greater autonomy for East Azerbaijan's predominantly Azeri population who feel that they are discriminated against. In one incident, fans of Traktor Sazi, which is owned by the state-run Iran Tractor Manufacturing Co. (ITMCO), wore shirts with the Turkish and Azerbaijan flags and raised the Azerbaijani flag.
"The main (Iranian concern) is that the idea of Turkism is strengthening in South Azerbaijan," News.Az quoted Saftar Rahimli, a member of the board of the World Azerbaijani's Congress, as saying at the time. Mr. Rahimli was referring to Eastern Azerbaijan by its nationalist Azeri name. Earlier protests were sparked by the Iranian parliament's refusal to fund efforts to save the environmentally endangered Lake Orumiyeh.
A decision by security forces in October of last year to bar fans entry into the stadium during a match against Tehran's Esteghlal sent thousands into the streets of Tabriz shouting "Azerbaijan is united" and ""Long live united Azerbaijan with its capital in Tabriz." Scores were injured as security forces tried to break up the protest. Cars honking their horns choked traffic.
"Wherever Tractor goes, fans of the opposing club chant insulting slogans. They imitate the sound of donkeys, because Azerbaijanis are historically derided as stupid and stubborn. I remember incidents going back to the time that I was a teenager," said a long-standing observer of Iranian soccer.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog where this story first appeared.