TEHRAN: Tehran on Sunday slammed the US Soccer Federation after it briefly displayed the Iranian national flag on social media platforms without the country’s emblem in a show of support for anti-government protesters.
Iran’s government accused the American organization of removing the name of God from its flag and called for it to be “held responsible” for breaking FIFA rules.
The row has erupted in the run up to the two nations’ clash in a decisive World Cup match on Tuesday.
The USSF decision has added yet another political firestorm to the Middle East’s first World Cup which organizers had hoped would be spared off-the-field controversies.
Iran has been rocked by months of demonstrations against Tehran’s regime which have seen protesters from all walks of life burning pictures of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and calling for the downfall of Iran’s theocracy.
Khamenei’s niece, a well-known rights activist, has called on foreign governments to cut all ties with Tehran over its violent crackdown on popular unrest.
A video of a statement by Farideh Moradkhani, an engineer whose late father was a prominent opposition figure married to Khamenei’s sister, was being widely shared online after what activist news agency HRANA said was her arrest on Nov. 23.
In the video, Moradkhani said: “Free people, be with us and tell your governments to stop supporting this murderous and child-killing regime.
“This regime is not loyal to any of its religious principles and does not know any rules except force and maintaining power.”
The clip was shared on YouTube by her brother, France-based Mahmoud Moradkhani on his Twitter account, and then by prominent Iranian rights activists.
In a statement on Sunday morning, the USSF said it had decided to forego the official Iranian flag on social media accounts to show “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights.”
The Twitter account of the US men’s team displayed a banner with the squad’s matches in the group stage, with the Iranian flag only bearing its green, white, and red colors.
The same was seen in a post on its Facebook and Instagram accounts laying out the point totals so far in its group.
By Sunday afternoon, the normal flag with the emblem had been restored in the Twitter banner and the Facebook and Instagram posts with the altered flag had been removed.
The federation said: “We wanted to show our support for the women in Iran with our graphic for 24 hours.”
Its spokesman Neil Buethe would not say if the original decision had been cleared by USSF President Cindy Parlow Cone, a former national team player.
“This was a decision within the federation. I’m not going to get into who knew and who didn’t,” he said.
On whether there had been discussions with diplomatic entities, Buethe added: “There have been at certain times. I’m not going to talk about those, but, again, this is our decision not anyone else’s or pressure from anyone else.”
The USSF displayed the official Iranian flag in a graphic showing the World Cup Group B standings on its website.
The demonstrations challenging Iran’s government were sparked by the Sept. 16 death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by the country’s morality police.
Protests have since seen at least 450 people killed and more than 18,000 arrested, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, an advocacy group following the demonstrations.
Iran’s ISNA news agency quoted Safiollah Fagahanpour, an adviser to the Iranian Football Federation, saying that the “measures taken regarding the Iran flag are against the law” of FIFA competitions.
“They must be held responsible. Obviously, they want to affect Iran’s performance against the US by doing this,” Fagahanpour added.
Iran’s flag has become a point of contention at the World Cup.
Apparent pro-government supporters have waved it, shouting at those demonstrating over Amini’s death.