Politics & Policy

Don’t Let Iran Play Ball

Ban their soccer team from Germany 2006; and replace it with Israel's

Two clocks are ticking in Tehran; one, faster, is the nuclear clock. The other, slower, is the regime-change clock. The challenge for Western policymakers trying to square this circle is how to slow down the former while accelerating the latter.

#ad#Military intervention is practically risky and politically remote. It is risky because it could easily cause a nationalist backlash strengthening, rather than weakening, support for the regime. It is remote, because in Europe at least force is no option and, especially after the deep transatlantic rift caused by the Iraq war, Europe, and the U.S. need to cooperate in order to achieve the common goal of preventing Iran’s dictatorship from going nuclear.

Before last June’s presidential elections in Iran brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, the Europeans, backed by the U.S., had pursued a policy of “critical engagement” with the regime (which sometimes boiled down to the Europeans engaging and the Iranians criticising). But Ahmadinejad’s crude radicalism exposed the true face of Iran’s regime: A blunter policy is now urgently needed. What to do? Short of war and surgical strikes against nuclear targets, the West can opt for economic sanctions. But economic sanction regimes have a patchy record: Rarely have they truly undermined the regimes they were meant to target (think Iraq and Serbia); often their long-term effect was to hurt the oppressed populations they were meant to rescue (think Iraq again); and they solicit illicit traffics, inviting companies to circumvent them (think Oil-for-Food). And given the Islamic republic’s strong economic ties with Europe and Russia, there is no reason to doubt that a sanctions’ regime, even if approved, would involve similar shortcomings.

There are however a number of viable alternatives. To slow down the nuclear clock, there is little need to invade Iran or target it from the air. Leave the business to selective, smart sanctions, implemented through aggressive naval blockades and border controls. And give it some help through discreet sabotage: One does not need to destroy Iran’s reactors; it is enough to incapacitate some of those who operate them, for example.

When it comes to speeding up the clock of regime change, there’s the old, true, and tested method of supporting revolution through generous financial and logistical aid to opposition groups and other subversive but peaceful means. This is a must, but it will take time.

Something dramatic is now needed to keep the pressure going on Iran. The Soccer World Cup, scheduled for next June in Germany, offers a great chance.

On December 9, the German city of Leipzig will host the draw for the qualifying matches of Germany 2006. Iran is among the 32 qualified teams. Not so Israel, which Iran’s president would like to wipe off the map.

So here’s the deal. As Washington Institute’s Iran expert Patrick Lawson has suggested in the past, the international community should exclude Iran from the world cup. Sport bans have been successfully used in the past against South Africa’s teams, both club and national. The precedent would impose no burden on business interests but it would embarrass Tehran and create an international consensus on the nature of its regime.

Though soccer matches in Iran during the qualifying stages actually served as focal point of anti-regime demonstrations, this time the games would be far from home and would offer less of a chance for street demonstrations. A ban on the other hand would create a further popular grievance against the regime, and it would tell the people of Iran that their national pride, though wounded it may be, can be rescued once their government acts in a more benign fashion towards its neighbours as well as its own citizens. And that the West, for a change, is now serious about helping Iran’s democrats bring the mullahs down.

But the ban would deprive the World Cup of a team. Who would replace Iran at the Leipzig draw on December 9?

Israel’s team is the answer. Israel, geographically in the Middle East, had to play against much stronger European teams like France and Ireland, due to a sport boycott–tolerated by international sport authorities–which the Jewish state endures in its region. If that was not enough, foreign teams feared playing in Israel for safety reasons, forcing Israel to play its own home games away from home and its supporters. Despite these hurdles, Israel’s team performed well and was eliminated in the qualifying stages only due to goal difference. But had Israel played instead against Qatar, Laos, and Jordan like Iran did, it would have easily qualified. Given Ahmadinejad’s propensity to destroy Israel, and Israel’s worthy performance on the soccer field, this swap is only fair.

But there’s a deeper political message here. Israel’s national team is a symbol of coexistence in the region, with Arab and Jewish players sharing the same passion for the sport and the same devotion to the colours of their national team. The replacement of Iran, whose president wants to wipe Israel off the map, with a Jewish-Arab team donning Israel’s flag, would publicly humiliate the mullahs in front of the world and it would underscore a blunt if symbolic message to Tehran: as long as you act as a pariah nation, you will be treated as one.

Emanuele Ottolenghi teaches Israel studies at Oxford University.

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