Iran's clerical leadership has often lauded the impact of sports in rallying the nation, but commendations can quickly turn to condemnation for athletes who dare to step out of line.
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, scores of athletes who have shown anything but complete loyalty to the clerical establishment have been barred from competitions, arrested, or even executed. Amid mass anti-government protests that have broken out in recent years, sports figures who raised their voices have again been targeted by the authorities.
While meeting a group of Iranian athletes in 1979, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini expressed his faith in their ability to use international competition to spread the ideals of the revolution across the globe.
"I am not an athlete, but I love athletes. I love the doers of good, although I am not one of them," he said. "I beseech God, the most blessed and exalted, to grant greater success to you young people, who are the assets of this country and the source of hope for the nation and Islam, in doing sports in all human dimensions."
But not all of Iran's athletes fit the mold. Among the prominent stars missing from the photo op was soccer star Habib Khabiri, a key factor in Iran's march to its first-ever appearance at the World Cup in 1978. While Khabiri would go on to captain the national squad in 1980, he would eventually pay the ultimate price for his alleged disloyalty to the revolution.
While Khabiri initially joined the street protests that ushered in the revolution, he later allegedly joined the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), which itself had participated in the Islamic Revolution that toppled the shah but was soon branded a threat by the new clerical establishment.
A team photo taken prior to a game in 1982 in which Khabiri is the only player not holding up a portrait of Khomeini has long been taken as black and white proof of his differences with the authorities.
Fellow teammate Ebrahim Kian Tahmasebi, also seen in the photo, explained the backstory.
"Habib turned Khomeini's picture upside down in the dressing room," Tahmasebi told RFE/RL's Radio Farda from Sweden. And when other players turned on him, Khabiri didn't budge. "Habib was calm, as always, and said: ‘The revolution will not be overturned by overturning the photo.'"
In 1983, as the authorities cracked down on suspected sympathizers and members of the MKO -- which by then openly called for Khomeini's overthrow and had aligned with Baghdad in the Iran-Iraq War -- Khabiri was arrested.
After being subjected to torture in prison, according to fellow prisoners and teammates, Khabiri was executed at the age of 29 alongside 40 other alleged dissidents in July 1984.
Recent cases involving prominent sports figures caught up in the crackdown on ongoing antiestablishment protests bear some resemblance to Khabiri's. Two athletes have been executed despite international outcry, while others have been killed during protests, arrested, or pressured to get in line with the authorities' demands. Many have been subjected to sham trials with little or no chance to defend themselves, according to rights groups. And athletes' immediate families have often faced pressure as well.
Navid Afkari, once one of Iran's highest-ranked Greco-Roman wrestlers, was executed at the age of 27 in September 2020 after being convicted of murdering a security guard during antiestablishment protests in the southern city of Shiraz in 2018.
There were worldwide calls for Afkari to be pardoned, and his execution was condemned by rights groups who criticized the trial as a "travesty of justice" that denied him legal representation and refused to take into account his testimony that he had been forced to confess under torture.
The former wrestling champion's last recorded words were: "If I am executed, I want you to know that an innocent person, even though he tried and fought with all his strength to be heard, was executed."
An attorney who advocated for Afkari argued that there was no proof of guilt, and decried that the wrestler's family was not allowed to meet him prior to his execution, a violation of Iranian law. His brothers, Vahid and Habib, were sentenced to 54 and 27 years, respectively, in prison in the same case.
Many Iranians condemned his execution on social media, and as other Iranian athletes have been targeted by the authorities, the "United4Navid" hashtag is quickly revived as a reminder of his legacy.
In September 2021, Shahin Naseri, a prisoner who claimed he witnessed Afkari being tortured before his execution, was himself executed.
Mohammad Mehdi Karami
The mass protests that broke out in September over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini soon after she was arrested by the morality police for allegedly violating the head-scarf law have also resulted in the arrests and deaths of sports figures who supported her cause.
In January, three-time youth karate champion and national team member Mohammad Mehdi Karami was executed after being found guilty of involvement in the death of a member of the Basij paramilitary forces during a demonstration in the city of Karaj, west of Tehran.
Karami's execution took place just 65 days after his arrest and following a trial in which he was given just 15 minutes to defend himself in court. The 22-year-old was denied the right to choose his own legal representation, and had begun a dry hunger strike in protest. Activists alleged that Karami was beaten unconscious by prison guards and threatened with rape while incarcerated, and rights groups said that the court relied on forced confessions.
Of the 16 people detained in relation to the killing of the Basij officer, Karami and one other were executed, while the others, including minors, received lengthy prison sentences.
One of the biggest stars to ever suit up for Iran's national soccer team, Ali Daei, ran into trouble after he voiced support for the protests. In December, the 53-year-old former player and coach was denied the right to leave the country to attend Iran's World Cup appearance in Qatar, and has also had his business shuttered by the authorities owing to his support for the protests.
Voria Ghafouri, who was left off the World Cup squad, was arrested in November for "insulting the national soccer team and propagandizing against the government" just days after expressing sympathy for Amini's family and calling for an end to the state crackdown on protesters.
And members of the national team reportedly got a talking to from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps after they appeared to support the protests by abstaining from singing Iran's national anthem ahead of their game with England.
In January, wrestler Mohammad Namjoo-Motlagh told Radio Farda he was seeking asylum in Germany after facing "constant threats and psychological pressure" from the Iranian Wrestling Federation and other state bodies over his support for the ongoing protests.
"It was clear where this was going," said Namjoo-Motlagh, who is believed to have posted social-media posts that were critical of the authorities and supportive of the protests. "I would either lose my life or they would blind me, or in the best-case scenario, I would be sent to prison."
The same month came news that a death sentence handed down to Amir Nasr-Azadani, a soccer player who played for a number of clubs in Iran's top domestic league and had campaigned for women's rights, had been overturned. But Nasr-Azadani, who the previous month was found guilty of complicity in the killings of three Basij officers during protests, still faces 16 years in prison.
The trend of punishing sports figures who protest has extended to the chessboard and reached great heights.
In October, sport-climbing champion Elnaz Rekabi competed in South Korea without her hair covered, a violation of Iran's strict rules during international competition. The act was widely seen as one of support for the protests.
When Rekabi returned to Iran, she offered an apology that some fellow athletes said was forced. In April, it was reported that she was not allowed to leave the country to continue her training in Spain.
Sara Khadem, a top female Iranian chess player, competed without a head scarf at an international tournament in Kazakhstan in December. Khadem refused to return to Iran for fear of retribution and moved to Spain with her husband. She recently said while competing in a tournament there that she has no regrets for her actions.
Soccer player Reza Shekari, meanwhile, has been banned from playing in Iran’s domestic league and summoned to face a disciplinary committee after he refused to celebrate after scoring a goal.
Gone But Not Forgotten
To this day, Tehran has given no explanation for the reasons for Khabib's arrest, the charges against him, or details regarding his trial. His reported denunciation of the MKO appears not to have been taken into consideration, and his family members were not allowed to attend his funeral.
But his legacy is undeniable, both on and off the pitch.
Journalist Faridun Shibani, who traveled with the national team when Khabib played, said that there were some things about the man and player that he could not write at the time.
"I fell in love with the morals of this young man," Shibani told Radio Farda. "Habib is one of the leaders in recognizing and opposing the Islamic republic. He opened the eyes of others to the new system."
Buried in secret in an unmarked grave, the authorities eventually relented to the public, allowing a simple gravestone bearing the soccer legend's name to mark his plot at Tehran's Behesht-e Zahra cemetery.