Last month alone, two prominent Iranian soccer players found themselves summoned to the Ethics Committee of the Iranian soccer federation. Masoud Shojaei was called in for discussing corruption in Iranian soccer in an interview with a foreign media outlet. One week later, on Dec. 10, Mehdi Rahmati, the goalkeeper and current captain of the Esteghlal Football Club, was summoned for taking a picture with a woman who was not wearing a headscarf during a team camp in Armenia.
In June, the Ethics Committee suspended Sosha Makani, a goalkeeper with Tehran’s well-established Persepolis club, from domestic competitions for six months for having worn “inappropriate clothing.” Other players have also been summoned and in some cases faced suspensions over matters such as attending mixed gender parties, plucking their eyebrows, eating in public during the fasting month of Ramadan, getting tattoos and posting private photos online.
The measures taken by the Ethics Committee are not uncommon in Iran, and they have become a source of controversy on social media and in the country’s soccer community. Critics say the Ethics Committee’s interference in players’ personal lives is inappropriate and in violation of a FIFA statute.
Officials in the Ethics Committee think otherwise. They say the FIFA statute needs to be domesticized. In an interview with the semi-official ISNA news agency on March 6, 2016, the Ethics Committee’s current head, Judge Morteza Turak, discussed whether players should be penalized for having tattoos or their hair styled in certain ways. Turak said, “Some topics may not fit within the framework and principles of FIFA, but they fit within our Sharia [Islamic law] principles. In these cases, our Sharia principles will govern the rules. This is what domestication means, and FIFA has accepted the concept of domestication.”
FIFA’s Ethics Committee was first set up in 2006 with the aim of investigating allegations of corruption in soccer. On June 28, 2008, Iran incorporated this shift into the legal structure of its national soccer federation under what came to be known as the “Headquarters for the Charter on Ethics and Conduct.” Iran’s aim was to use the regulations set by FIFA’s Ethics Committee and adapt them to conform to its definition of “Islamic culture.”
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Mehdi Mahmoudi, a legal adviser to Iran’s national soccer federation, said the FIFA statute outlines the general code of ethics and conduct, but does not go into detail. He said, “The definition of these ethical codes is different in every country. These codes stem from the public order of each of the federations that function under FIFA. In Iran, for example, the public order is different from that of Britain.” Mahmoudi added, “I think the officials in Iran’s Ethics Committee believe some of the [FIFA] regulations go against the proper conduct and public order in the country, and thus [resulting in] the approach they have taken on the issue. Nonetheless, some of these approaches violate the privacy of individuals and are too extreme.”
The decisions of the Headquarters for the Charter on Ethics and Conduct was first implemented in connection with the 2009-2010 Persian Gulf Cup (also known as the Iran Pro League) — despite opposition from the country’s soccer community. Paragraph 14 of the charter, for instance, banned Iranian soccer players from wearing tight clothing that reveals their figures or clothing that displays foreign brands. Players were also banned from imitating “foreign” hair styles or wearing jewelry such as necklaces, earrings and rings. Any violation of these restrictions led to a suspension.
The implementation of the Charter on Ethics and Conduct quickly sparked criticism. Those who were suspended filed complaints against Hojatoleslam Alireza Alipour, then secretary of the Headquarters for the Charter on Ethics and Conduct, with the Iranian judiciary’s special clerical court. These complaints, along with accusations of financial corruption related to the sale of tickets for Iran’s games in the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, resulted in Alipour’s arrest by the special clerical court in May 2011. He was, however, released on bail only days later.
The Headquarters for the Charter on Ethics and Conduct continued to remain in place following this incident, although responsibility for the implementation of the charter was transferred from the national soccer federation to Iran’s Football League, ultimately giving way to the Committee for Protecting the [Football] League.
With the descent of the Headquarters for the Ethics and Conduct Charter, the national soccer federation sought to establish an Ethics Committee with a similar approach — an approach that, according to Mahmoudi, had its basis in the committee members’ lack of knowledge about soccer. “The problem is that the individuals who are on the Ethics Committee have a history of holding legal positions and not football-related jobs. It will take time for them to become familiar with the atmosphere and requirements of football,” Mahmoudi said.
Ali Akbar Mohammadzadeh, who formerly headed the Ethics Committee, used to be an inspector at courts in Tehran and, as such, put a strong emphasis on the observation of Islamic ethical principles during his time in office. For instance, in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia, Mohammadzadeh warned soccer players against taking selfies with female fans after such photos began circulating on social media. The same warning had also been issued to players in the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
On Sept. 6, 2015, prominent strikers Ashkan Dejagah and Sardar Azmoun were summoned by the Ethics Committee for revealing tattoos on their arms during a national team visit with Guam’s soccer team. In an interview with a local sports site on the same day, Mohammadzadeh said, “We have been lenient with people like Dejagah [regarding tattoos] for a year and a half, but this leniency will not continue forever. … At some point, we have to end such actions that are against [Islamic] culture.”
At present, the Ethics Committee is headed by Turak, who has served as Deputy Chief Justice of Tehran. As such, Turak was present in the notorious trials of businessmen Mahafarid Amir Khosravi and Babak Zanjani, two of Iran’s most talked about corruption cases in recent years. In the case of Amir Khosravi, Turak was in charge of executing the prosecutor general’s ruling, which was execution. For the Zanjani trial, he provided an evaluation of the businessman’s assets in his capacity as deputy chief of justice of Tehran.
On Dec. 5, “Navad,” a popular weekly sports program broadcast on Iranian state television, conducted a phone interview with Turak. In the interview, he was asked to explain the legal basis for banning players from taking photos with fans, and if these ethical codes of conduct had been provided to players. He responded, “The law of the country does not need to be announced to them.”
Mahmoudi, the legal adviser to the national soccer federation, told Al-Monitor that one of the main complaints about the Ethics Committee is that it has not published its regulations anywhere. “I think the arrival of Judge Turak and the harsher approach that is being adopted is aimed at creating a sense of fear and deterrence among Iran’s football community. However, the regulations need to be published so that the ethical codes are available to everyone. Though it is bad, having bad regulations and being aware of them is better than having none at all.”
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