The Torture and Execution of a Wrestler Undermines the Islamic Republic at Home and Abroad

September 16, 2020 | Michael Rubin
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On Saturday, Iran hanged the twenty-seven-year-old champion wrestler Navid Afkari, after torturing him into confessing to a spurious murder charge. Afkari’s real crime was participation in the 2018 anti-government protests—which led to the arrest and torture of hundreds of others. Since seizing power in 1979, notes Michael Rubin the ayatollahs have “executed tens of thousands of prisoners and dissidents,” but this case may be different:

The two most popular sports in Iran are wrestling and soccer. Both are widely followed across society, but a class difference exists: soccer is favored by the educated and the elite, while wrestling is embraced more by the working class. Like all . . . revolutionary regimes, the Islamic Republic dismisses those with a more internationalist outlook but bases its claims to legitimacy on the support of the poor and the working class. Indeed, from the Islamic Revolution to the present day, Iran’s revolutionary authorities have infused their rhetoric with calls for social justice and addressing the have-nots and working class within society. Afkari’s execution suggests, however, that the regime has abandoned the effort to win the hearts of minds of its core constituency, and instead believe it must rely on brute force.

On an international level, Afkari’s death will also have ramifications: international anti-Israel animus may have undercut past pressure on the International Olympics Committee and other sporting bodies to investigate or punish Iran for ordering their sportsmen to forfeit matches against athletes from the Jewish state. But executing a star athlete on such flimsy grounds is harder to ignore and may lead to Iran’s ban from international forums once the coronavirus pause is over.

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