Tehran cop standing up to celeb raises debate on privilege, rule of law

A controversial incident involving a former Iranian soccer player who refused to abide by traffic laws has ignited furious reactions in Iran against celebrities expecting special favors.

al-monitor Farhad Majidi (L) of Iran's Esteghlal fights for the ball with Lee Jung Soo of Qatar's Al-Sadd during their AFC Champions League match at Al-Sadd Stadium in Doha, Qatar, May 3, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad.
Saeid Jafari

Saeid Jafari


Topics covered


Mar 24, 2019

Like celebrities in other countries, those in Iran may be expecting favors when facing law enforcement officers. But a recent incident and the ensuing public outrage could make them rethink that kind of attitude. Farhad Majidi, a legendary former soccer player and current coach, posted a video on his Instagram account earlier this month showing him in a seemingly tense verbal exchange with a traffic police officer.

Majidi was said to have been pulled over for speeding on a Tehran highway. The popular former soccer star seemed to have been expecting the officer to recognize his fame and let go of him as a result. To his surprise, the policeman ordered a breathalyzer test instead — a request that ticked off Majidi, who started filming the argument. In the captured conversation, the recently appointed coach of Tehran's popular Esteghlal club is heard resisting the police. The exchange continues with the officer asking for license and registration to only be dismissed by an enraged Majidi once again, who said he was not carrying the documents. The last response on the clip left the officer with no option but to have the vehicle impounded.

With over 1 million followers on his Instagram page, Majidi had been hoping to rally support from fans by posting the video. He also called on police authorities to deal with the officer. His outrage even pushed him to the point where he released the officer's name in a separate post, trying to pit senior police officials and the public against the officer. 

To Majidi’s dismay, however, things did not turn out the way he had planned. His Instagram posts were met with a barrage of furious comments from the public, who reproached him for the seemingly blatant violation of traffic rules and his overall disrespect for the rule of law. They also hailed the officer for being duty-bound and refusing to be intimidated by the soccer coach's fame.

A similar response came from the officer's superiors. The social affairs deputy of Iran's traffic police stood up for the officer, saying he responsibly followed the rules by pulling over the vehicle, which was recorded at 50 kilometers an hour (31 mph) beyond the speed limit. Col. Eynollah Jahani also said the impounding of Majidi's vehicle was the rightful decision as Majidi had failed to present his license and registration.

A small number of Esteghlal fans came out in defense of the former soccer player. Some among them even went to extremes by bringing soccer-related explanations. They accused the officer of taking side with Esteghlal's archrival, Persepolis. The majority, however, said Majidi deserved to be in hot water. They brought into question his expectation that the law should not be implemented when it comes to him.

A similar incident of controversial behavior involving another soccer player hit the headlines almost at the same time. Alireza Haghighi, a former goalkeeper on Iran's national soccer team who was at the pinnacle of his popularity during the 2014 Brazil FIFA World Cup, had a violent outburst with the deputy chief of Esteghlal club after the two had a dispute about use of the team's training area. The club official's sarcastic comment that the former Persepolis goalkeeper no longer was able to charm any club into signing a contract with him pushed Haghighi to the edge. Haghighi, who recently parted ways with the Swedish club GIF Sundsvall, left the Esteghlal club official with a broken nose.

"It is undeniable that Iranian celebrities expect to be treated with favor by both officials and ordinary citizens," journalist and film critic Arameh Etemadi told Al-Monitor. "They have been spoiled by their fame and name. Majidi and Haghighi were unlucky to find their cases laid bare to the media. That attitude is shared by almost all other celebrities in Iran."

What further seems to be a trigger of negative sentiments against Iranian celebrities is their whopping wages amid ongoing economic grievances the public is grappling with. The Iranian news site Khabar Online invited readers to comment on Majidi's behavior with regard to the traffic police incident. A majority of the 100 comments slammed what they found excessive demands from Majidi and other celebrities and attacked them for their sense of entitlement.

"We have to thank the police for proportionately dealing with such an arrogant and demanding soccer player," wrote one of the forum participants. "Why is it that ordinary citizens have to be punished for violating the law but a soccer player, who earns 10 times more than us, would expect to be exempted?"

There were some from among the celebrity community who decided to swim somewhat against the tide. Well-known actress Mahnaz Afshar denied that celebrities hoped to be favored. She said ordinary citizens and celebrities are given equal treatment before the law. "But officers should also treat people with respect," she tweeted.

To further place pressure on Majidi and other celebrities, a number of social media users also found and reposted videos of similar incidents in other countries, where celebrities had been pulled over and punished by road police patrols for speeding or drunk driving.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Tehran-based sociologist Mariam Siami traced the roots of such disobedient behavior by some celebrities to the luxurious lifestyle they are leading and the wealth they have accumulated thanks to their skills and talents. "That has put them in a position where they expect special favors. After facing law enforcement penalties, some of them even play the victim instead of expressing apologies." Siami also found that having social media popularity and significant numbers of fan page followers to be factors that help celebrities develop an attitude of superiority. "Financial strains pressing ordinary people hard and the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor have already created potential hatred against those who are seen as better off," she said. "Ordinary people keep comparing their salaries to those of an actor or a soccer player, only to get disillusioned by the fact that despite tirelessly working, they still get far less."

For now, Majidi's behavior remains an open case as the Iranian police is pursuing a legal complaint against him. Although the soccer coach has already removed all the posts from his social media account, the debate over such controversial conduct is far from over. Iranian celebrities insist that a simple respectful treatment is all they want, and that they find themselves no different from ordinary citizens as far as the long arm of the law is concerned. In practice, however, some of them still seem to demand privileged treatment.

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