The wife and daughter of the soccer star Ali Daei, one of the most prominent critics of Iran’s crackdown on protesters, were stopped from leaving Iran.
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The soccer legend had been speaking up for months, telling Iran’s government to respond to its people’s demands, making himself one of the most prominent critics of its crackdown on the protests that have engulfed the country for more than 100 days.
The authorities let their displeasure be known in early December, shutting down two businesses owned by the retired star, Ali Daei.
Then on Monday, he said, they went a step further — forcing an Iranian airliner to land mid-flight so they could sweep Mr. Daei’s wife and daughter off the plane and prevent them from leaving the country.
It was just the latest example of a draconian crackdown by the government that in recent weeks has included executing protesters and putting more on death row, and another reminder for the country’s actors, sports stars and other celebrities that their fame will not protect them from the government’s wrath and long reach if they support the demonstrations.
Though Mr. Daei, 53, has not taken any formal role in politics, his popularity among ordinary Iranians — he was captain of the national team and a record-setting international goal scorer — has given him a symbolic status outstripping almost any other opposition figure. That has made him a top target for a government seeking to keep the demonstrations from morphing into an organized uprising.
“This was very publicly done in a very brazen way,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East program at Chatham House, a British research institute, noting that diverting the flight was an unusually high-profile and dramatic move, even for a government known for harassing, intimidating and detaining the family members of critics.
“They see someone like Ali Daei as potentially such a significant mobilizer,” she added, “that they’re willing to go to such lengths to use his family in this way.”
The protests first erupted in mid-September after the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish Iranian woman arrested by morality police for allegedly violating Iran’s laws mandating modest dress and head scarves for women. At least 458 people have been killed in the ensuing government crackdown, according to Iran Human Rights, including 63 children and 29 women.
Thousands more have been arrested. Two young men have been hanged for participating in the protests. Another 11 await execution, while rights groups say dozens more, including a well-known soccer player named Amir Nasr Azadani, may be sent to death row after being charged with crimes that carry the death penalty.
Much is uncertain about the incident involving Mr. Daei, including where his wife and daughter were headed — to a vacation or to escape. Since the initial reports first emerged on Monday, Iranian state media has offered vague and contradictory information about the case.
Mr. Daei told state media that his wife, Mona Farokhazari, and daughter, Noora Daei, were flying from Tehran to Dubai on Mahan Air, an Iranian airline, when the plane was forced to land on Kish Island, which lies in the Persian Gulf between Iran’s southern coast and the United Arab Emirates. Mr. Daei, whose own passport was reportedly confiscated earlier this year, said the two were questioned and prevented from boarding a new flight to Dubai, then returned to Tehran.
“They passed through passport control and boarded the plane quite legally,” Mr. Daei said on Monday, according to state media. “If there was a problem, why didn’t they arrest them? If there is no problem, why did they bring them back?”
By Tuesday, Mr. Daei had not backed down, telling the media, “I thank God that their plane was not hit by enemy missiles” — a sarcastic reference to the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by two Iranian missiles in January 2020, in which all 176 people aboard were killed.
Mr. Daei, whose current location is unclear, did not respond to messages on social media or an email seeking comment.
Tasnim, a news agency closely linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, claimed that the pair’s true final destination was the United States. But Mr. Daei provided photos to Tabnak, an Iranian news site, of the women’s round trip flight reservation, showing that they were scheduled to return from Dubai to Tehran on Jan. 2.
Tasnim also said that Ms. Farokhazari was banned from travel by a court as well as Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, while ISNA, another state news agency, quoted an anonymous source saying that she had been barred from leaving because she had cooperated with “anti-revolutionary groups and agitators” and called for a strike. But three major state news agencies, including Mizan, the judiciary’s official news agency, carried a statement denying that any court order prevented Ms. Farokhazari from traveling.
Whatever the reason, the authorities’ ability to divert a Mahan Air plane came as little surprise to Iran watchers. The airline was previously sanctioned by the United States for supporting the Revolutionary Guards, the elite Iranian force charged with protecting its theocratic ruling system.
In 2020, Steven T. Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary at the time, called Mahan “a tool” for Iran “to spread its destabilizing agenda around the world.” He said the regime used the airline to ferry supplies or troops to Syria and Venezuela as well as Iran’s proxy militias around the Middle East, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The airline’s spokesman, Amir Hossein Zulanwari, told Rouydad24, an Iranian publication, that Mahan Air was not responsible for the landing. “This incident has nothing to do with Mahan Air and was done on the order of the security council,” he said.
That an Iranian body tasked with overseeing national security directly intervened to ensure a soccer player’s wife and daughter did not leave the country suggests the extent to which the government has come to view Iran’s celebrities as threats. Numerous filmmakers, actors, athletes and rappers have used their star power and extensive social media followings to criticize the government and support the protests, and many have been arrested over the last three months.
Besides Mr. Daei, several other Iranian soccer icons have condemned the government’s brutal response to the demonstrations.
Another famous player, Ali Karimi, has become a one-man online hub for revolutionary activity, sharing footage of the violent crackdown and circulating tips on getting around Iran’s internet restrictions. The authorities seized Mr. Karimi’s house outside Tehran in September.
A third outspoken player, Voria Ghafouri, was arrested on charges of “incitement against the regime” as the World Cup got underway November, though he was later released on bail.
“These superstars have been instrumental in keeping the protest movement alive — creating a virtual opposition party through interviews and a vigorous online presence,” Bahman Baktiari, an academic and the executive director of the Baskerville Institute, which focuses on Iranian-American relations, recently wrote.
Their fame and the sense that, as authentic, born-and-bred locals, they understand Iranians’ struggles have put celebrities in the forefront of the opposition, said Ms. Vakil, who said she expected Iran’s targeting of them and their families to intensify.
Mr. Daei refused invitations from World Cup organizers to attend this year’s tournament in Qatar, in order “to be with you in my country and express my sympathy to all the families who have lost their loved ones,” he said on Instagram, where he has 11 million followers, in November.
When shopkeepers around the country took part in a three-day nationwide strike in early December, Mr. Daei said on social media that he would join in. The authorities promptly sealed his restaurant and jewelry store. He has also said that he and his family had received “numerous” threats over his support of the protests.
The government’s targeting of his relatives echoes previous instances in which it has gone after the family members of dissidents, journalists and others it considers threats. It has repeatedly harassed, arrested and interrogated relatives of London-based reporters for BBC Persian, the BBC’s Farsi-language edition, over the last decade, the BBC and rights groups have said. Iran has also arrested family members of Masih Alinejad, a U.S.-based journalist and activist who has campaigned against Iran’s conservative dress code for women.
Leily Nikounazar contributed reporting.
Ali Daei’s Family Is Targeted After He Supports Iran Protests – The New York Times