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Cheers, Chants For Soccer Player Defending 'Ordinary Iranians'

Voria Ghafuri appeared to anger the country's highest authority with his suggestion that Tehran's policies abroad were inflicting pain on the people.

Fans in the Iranian capital gave rousing cheers to a soccer player in his first match since being summoned to answer for his criticism of the government's suggestion that Iranians are proud to be under pressure over Tehran's policies in the region, including support for militants.

Thirty-one-year-old defender Voria Ghafuri had used Instagram to challenge a statement by Mohammad Javad Zarif in which the foreign minister called "pressure because of issue of pride for us."

"Mr. Zarif, you who say that you are proud to be under pressure because of Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria know that it's not you who is under pressure," Ghafuri said in a post to his more than 750,000 followers that appears to have since been removed.

"In fact, ordinary Iranians are under pressure," Ghafuri added.

I'm concerned with social issues, and it's my duty to say these things, and I will say them until the end of my life."
-- Footballer Voria Ghafuri

Iran's economy and its currency have been hurt by the reimposition of U.S. sanctions following Washington's abandonment last year of a 2015 deal among global powers to ease UN and other sanctions in exchange for concessions on Iran's disputed nuclear program.

But critics argue that the country's economy also suffers from opaque ownership and cronyism among its elite, serial joblessness, and mismanagement.

Iran has lent considerable support to Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups, Yemeni Huthis, and embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and such spending has come under criticism during more than a year of sporadic street protests for diverting precious assets from domestic policies.

Loud cheers and chants of "Voria Ghafuri" erupted around the 20-minute mark of a February 20 soccer match in the Iranian capital.

The sports website Varzesh3 said that plans had been made to cheer Ghafuri midway through the game, but that the fans voiced loud support as soon as he entered the stadium.

"What happened at minute 21 was full-fledged support for someone who in recent days had played the role of a social, and perhaps political, critic," Varzesh3 wrote, adding that other soccer players from Esteghlal and rival teams had also expressed support for Ghafuri.

Ghafuri had also received praise from some on social media.

A video posted online showed fans calling Ghafuri an "honorable" man who had expressed "the words of the nation."

The statements by Foreign Minister Zarif that sparked Ghafuri's response were made in a February 12 speech.

Without naming Zarif, Ghafuri said in a February 17 interview that some comments by officials sounded "as if they're throwing salt in the pain and wounds of the people."

"Everyone is under pressure, [and authorities] make comments that make it worse," he said.

Ghafuri was reportedly summoned by officials to explain himself following a speech by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who warned those who "take advantage of the country's security to play sports" and adding, "They should not forget how that security is achieved."

Speaking after the February 20 match, Ghafuri confirmed that he had been summoned to the Sports Ministry's disciplinary committee, where he said he had a "friendly talk" with officials.

When asked whether he had been asked to limit his social-media postings to soccer, Ghafuri said, "If that were the case, there would be no freedom of speech anymore."

Iranian state and other media are routinely monitored by censors and other officials seeking to defend the country against what are regarded by authorities as political and cultural "red lines."

Ghafuri defended his post and said his intention was to highlight the plight of Iranians who are struggling with spiraling prices resulting from tough U.S. economic sanctions and mismanagement.

In recent weeks, the prices of basic goods like red meat, chicken, and vegetables have jumped amid reports of long lines of people waiting to buy discounted goods.

"My intention was to speak about people's pain," Ghafuri told journalists.

"When one sees the lines for chicken and meat, I think one should feel ashamed. Reporters should cover these lines to show the situation," Ghafuri said, adding that he is not a "political person."

"I'm concerned with social issues, and it's my duty to say these things, and I will say them until the end of my life," he said.

While still relatively rare, public criticism of Iran's policies in the region has been on the rise recently.

During last year's protests over prices, the economy, and corruption, some Iranians called on their leaders to focus on them instead of spending their resources in Gaza and Lebanon.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.