Sports and air transport are likely to serve as indicators of whether Iran has the flexibility to become a major node in an increasingly globalised world. The country’s willingness to relax strict gender segregation, dress codes, and its ban on alcohol will be at the core of Iranian efforts to become a global sports and airline hub.
How Iran deals with the rights of women fans as well as likely demands for relaxed restrictions at its international airports and on board its airlines will also serve as an indicator of how flexible Iranian hardliners, the main benefactors of the lifting of international sanctions, will be in taking advantage of Iran’s return to the international fold.
While the issue of gender segregation at sporting events has already arisen as Iran is hosting this year of two international volleyball tournaments, demands for relaxed restrictions in air transportation will continue to emerge as Iran prepares to turn Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport and state-owned Iran Air into global hubs. Optimists within Iran hope that the Tehran airport and its airline will compete with the airports of Istanbul, Doha, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi and their airlines including Turkish Airways, Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Ettihad.
Iran’s responses to the criticism that human rights groups have levelled against the government concerning the ban of women fans indicate that Iran could prove more flexible than many expect it to be on the issue. Human Rights Watch quoted executives of the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) as saying that, following a meeting with Iranian minister of sports and youth Mahmoud Goudarzi, progress was possible on the “key aim…of families being able to attend volleyball matches.”
“Discussions are still ongoing and we are hoping for a positive outcome ahead of the FIVB World Tour open event on (Iran’s) Kish Island,” FIVB General Director Fabio Azevedo told Inside the Games.
The FIVB event is scheduled to begin on 15 February.
Granting women the right to attend the Kish Island event would have greater symbolic significance given that volleyball was the last sports bastion that Iranian hardliners conquered when they pushed through the ban on women in 2012. Volleyball had until then been one of the few male sporting events accessible for women.
Human Rights Watch is sceptical about the prospects of a reversal of the ban. “Hopeful? That is not enough. Iran promised last June that female fans could attend matches, only to renege and threaten them before the tournament, dashing the hopes of women waiting to return to stadiums,” group member Minky Worden said.
Worden’s scepticism is reinforced by the unlikelihood that Iran will cave to international pressure in advance of this month’s elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the council that elects Iran’s spiritual leader. The bulk of reformist candidates for both councils did not muster enough votes and were disqualified.
On the air transport front, Iran signalled its intention to become a major transportation hub when it signed a $27bn agreement with Airbus for the purchase of 118 jets, one of the first major deals since the lifting of the sanctions, and contracts to expand Tehran’s international airport.
“Certainly this is our historical position: we have always been a centre for communications in the region,” Iranian minister of transport Abbas Akhouni told Reuters.
“We used to be a very important airline in the region and globally, so of course we want to play our role fully once again,” Iran Air Chairman Farhad Parvaresh said.
To do so despite a domestic passenger market that is expected to grow exponentially, Iran will have to match Gulf and Turkish airlines in their willingness to not enforce Islamic law as it regards gender interaction, dress codes, and alcohol consumption. The degree to which this is already a debate even among hardliners is reflected in the fact that some have criticised the Airbus deal for diverting cash from other social and economic priorities.
The outcome of the debate is likely to say much about Iran’s future course. Virtually all commercial agreements like the Iran Air deal signed since the lifting of the sanctions have been with state-owned conglomerates with close ties to pension funds and other government agencies such as the Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is widely seen as a pillar of hard-line factions in Iran. The deals also include a $2bn agreement with an Italian steel producer and a $439m agreement with Peugeot.
Both sports and Iran’s air transport ambitions will put the Islamic republic’s strategy to the test to make state-owned companies and state-controlled associations the primary beneficiary of the lifting of sanctions in the belief that this will allow it to limit foreign influences that could come with foreign investment.
“Investments through our big enterprises can be controlled,” analyst Hamidreza Taraghi, who has close ties to the government, said in an interview with The New York Times. Taraghi argued that opening the Iranian market to foreign investment “would provide leverage to Western governments and investors, leverage they would use to influence our politics, culture, and society”.
Ultimately what is likely to determine the outcome of the debate is what price Iran is willing to pay in terms of reigning in its ambitions to uphold its principles. Iran has demonstrated its ability to do so with its resilience during the years that it was subject to punitive sanctions. Nonetheless, it was ultimately willing to negotiate a nuclear deal, even if it drove a hard bargain.
Market forces and the choices Iran makes will determine whether it emerges as a competitive regional transportation hub. When it comes to sports, the onus will be on international sports federations if Iran does not take a first step by lifting the ban on women attending male volleyball matches. A failure by Iran to do so would signal that the price for Iran for flouting international rules is not yet high enough.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.