Longtime adversaries the United States and Iran face off on the pitch at the World Cup on Tuesday in a match that some Iranians fear may see further run-ins with stadium security or clashes with pro-government fans over raging protests back home.
The contest between the two nations that severed ties over 40 years ago will be held with increased security to prevent a flare-up of tensions over the unrest that has gripped Iran since the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16.
In a show of solidarity ahead of the match, which starts at 1900 GMT, the U.S. Soccer Federation temporarily displayed Iran’s national flag without the emblem of the Islamic Republic, leading Tehran to complain to FIFA, according to state media.
Qatar, which has strong ties with Washington and friendly relations with Tehran, has staked its reputation on delivering a smooth World Cup, beefing up security at Iran games and banning some items deemed inflammatory, like Iran’s pre-Revolution flag.
Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani arrived in Doha on Tuesday on an invitation from Qatar, state news agency IRNA reported without mentioning if he would attend the match.
U.S.-Iranian tensions have worsened since 2018 when then-President Donald Trump abandoned Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers. Efforts to salvage the pact under President Joe Biden’s administration have stalled.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking in Romania, played down any link between the match and political tensions and said he hoped the game would “speak for itself”, adding that he would be watching and cheering on his country.
Still, politics have spilled into the World Cup, the first to be held in a Middle East country.
Security teams deployed on Friday, when Iran beat Wales, to “break up a small number of altercations” between Iranian fans outside the stadium, a Qatari official said, adding the incidents were handled “swiftly” to contain tensions.
“I will not attend the game on Tuesday since I do not feel safe in Qatar,” said Iranian-Canadian Azi, who declined to give her last name and was wearing a T-shirt declaring “Women, Life, Freedom” – a slogan of the anti-government protests in Iran.