Washington, DC – An Arabic saying goes, “Politics has never touched anything that it did not spoil.”
But it has been nearly impossible to keep politics out of football ahead of a critical showdown between Iran and the United States at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar on Tuesday.
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With qualification to the knockout stage on the line for both teams, fans and organisers are hoping for an amicable game at Al Thumama Stadium to show the uniting power of the beautiful game.
Yet tensions already flared in the lead-up to the decisive Group B match, with Iran’s football federation submitting a complaint to FIFA against the US Soccer Federation (USSF) over the removal of the word “Allah” from the country’s flag in a now-deleted social media post.
The episode is the latest in years of growing hostility between the two countries. Here, Al Jazeera looks at the history of US-Iran relations, what issues lay at the heart of the disagreements, and how the World Cup fits into the fray.
The 1953 coup
Most experts say the roots of the Washington-Tehran rivalry can be traced back to the 1953 overthrow of democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in a CIA-orchestrated coup after he tried to nationalise the country’s oil industry.
In 2013, the CIA confirmed its involvement in the putsch, which restored the monarchical rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had been losing an internal power struggle to Mossadegh.
“The coup was the beginning of a sequence of tragedies that dog the US and its allies in the Middle East today,” former CIA operative Robert B Baer said at that time.
“It was the key source of the anti-American resentment that exploded during the Iranian Revolution of 1979,” said Baer, author of The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.
With the Western-backed Pahlavi tightening his autocratic grip on power in Tehran, Iran and the US enjoyed more than two decades of close official ties.
The Islamic Revolution
Then the Islamic Revolution broke out in 1979, changing the course of history in the region and beyond.
Pahlavi was overthrown and his US-friendly monarchy was replaced by a theocratic government sceptical of Washington as the leading Western power that backed the shah.
After being forced to abandon his throne, Pahlavi initially fled to Egypt, but months later, he made it to the US, where he underwent cancer treatment.
Although Washington said at that time that it admitted the deposed monarch on “humanitarian” grounds, Pahlavi’s arrival in the US set in motion a series of events that would turn the two countries into sworn enemies.
Iranian students who supported the Islamic Revolution took over the US embassy in Tehran in late 1979, taking 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage for 444 days.
In April 1980, then-US President Jimmy Carter cut Washington’s diplomatic ties with Tehran during the hostage crisis, and relations have not been restored since.
The animosity between Washington and Tehran worsened in 1980 as the Iran-Iraq war broke out; the US covertly supported Baghdad in the conflict, which would go on for eight years and claim hundreds of thousands of lives.
Throughout the 1980s, the US and Iran remained locked in an indirect confrontation.
In 1983, more than 240 US service members were killed in a suicide attack on a US Marine barracks in Beirut. Although no one took responsibility for the bombing, over the years many US politicians have linked the incident to early operatives of Lebanese group Hezbollah, backed by Iran.
The US added Iran to its list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism” in 1984.
Amid tensions in the Gulf, the US Navy shot down an Iranian civilian plane in 1988, killing all 290 people onboard in what Washington called at that time a “terrible human tragedy”.
Still, with the end of the Iran-Iraq war that year, US-Iranian ties became somewhat dormant during the 1990s.
Active tensions subsided with the rise of reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who told CNN in 1998 that the “American civilisation is worthy of respect”.
During a World Cup game in France between the US and Iran that year, Iranian players gifted white roses to their American counterparts ahead of the match. The Iranians won 2-1.
‘Axis of Evil’
The September 11, 2001, attacks in New York City and Washington, DC, which prompted then-President George W Bush to launch his “war on terror“, marked another turn in the history of the Middle East and the US-Iran rivalry.
The subsequent US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq brought American forces to two countries bordering Iran, and Bush labelled Tehran a member of the so-called “Axis of Evil” alongside North Korea and Iraq.
After it became known in the early 2000s that Iran was substantially developing its shah-era nuclear programme, the issue became a main point of contention between Tehran and Washington.
Although Iran maintained that it was not seeking a nuclear weapon, the US started moblising the international community to impose sanctions on Iran over the nuclear programme.
The sanctions would continue even as President Barack Obama replaced Bush in 2009, and as Iranian hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was succeeded by the more moderate Hassan Rouhani in 2013.
Iran nuclear deal
Obama and Rouhani held an historic phone call after the Iranian leader’s election victory – and a once-unthinkable diplomatic breakthrough followed in 2015.
The US and Iran – along with other major, international players – signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which saw Tehran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of sanctions against its economy.
But Obama faced an unprecedented campaign by conservatives and US-based allies of Israel, who pushed to undermine it. In a breach of diplomatic protocol, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech to Congress in 2015, warning against the accord.
And so, nixing the agreement became a core element of the Republican platform in the 2016 US elections. As President Donald Trump ascended to the White House in early 2017, it took him less than two years to withdraw Washington from the deal and start a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions against Iran.
In response, Tehran started escalating its nuclear programme well beyond the limits set by the JCPOA, sending regional tensions soaring even further.
The US and Iran came to the verge of an all-out conflict in early 2020 as a Trump-authorised bombing killed top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, following a deadly rocket attack in Iraq that Washington blamed on Iran-backed groups.
Iran responded by bombing bases hosting US troops in Iraq. And amid the heightened tensions at that time, Tehran said its forces mistakenly shot down a civilian airliner over the country’s capital, killing 176 people.
President Joe Biden would take office nearly a year later, promising to revive the JCPOA.
However, numerous rounds of indirect talks between US and Iranian diplomats have failed to chart a path back into the agreement. At various points, a deal appeared within reach, but it never materialised.
In the meantime, the Biden administration continued to enforce the Trump-era “maximum pressure” campaign. Now, after nuclear negotiations came to a halt earlier this year, ongoing anti-government protests in Iran have further complicated the prospect of diplomacy.
The death in Iranian police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old who was arrested in September in Tehran for “unsuitable attire”, has unleashed a wave of public anger and demonstrations across Iran, as well as global condemnation.
In response, the US has announced several rounds of sanctions against Iranian officials accused of cracking down on the demonstrators.
The war in Ukraine has further inflamed US-Iran tensions, with Washington accusing Tehran of providing Moscow with drones used in deadly attacks across Ukraine.
Against this backdrop, it is unlikely that Tuesday’s match between the US and Iran will have a substantial impact on the complicated relationship between the two nations.
Nevertheless, some are hoping that it will showcase football’s ability to transcend politics – and potentially bring people together.