- The United States Soccer Federation, in its social media posts over the weekend, featured the flags of the countries competing in Group B, which includes a match between the U.S. and Iran on Tuesday.
- In the posts, the Iranian flag icon was missing its Islamic Republic emblem, and only showed its red, white and green stripes.
- The flag change was made to show support for Iran's female-led protest movement, the U.S. Soccer Federation said.
Iranian state media is calling for the U.S. World Cup soccer team to be thrown out of the 2022 tournament in Qatar after it briefly changed the icon of the Iranian flag on its social media accounts in support of protests taking place in the country.
The United States Soccer Federation, in its social media posts over the weekend, featured the flags of the countries competing in Group B, which includes a match between the U.S. and Iran on Tuesday. In the posts, the Iranian flag icon was missing its Islamic Republic emblem, and only showed its red, white and green stripes.
Tuesday's match is a crucial one that already has drawn political undertones. Whoever wins will proceed to the knockout stages.
Iranian media reacted swiftly, with state media agency Tasnim calling for the U.S. team to be booted from the tournament.
"By posting a distorted image of the flag of the Islamic Republic of #Iran on its official account, the #US football team breached the FIFAcom charter, for which a 10-game suspension is the appropriate penalty. Team should be kicked out of the #WorldCup2022," Tasnim News Agency wrote in a post on its official Twitter account.
In a follow-up tweet, it added: "The legal advisor of the Iranian Football Federation says the sports association will file a complaint against the US Soccer Team to FIFA's Ethics Committee after the US Men's National Soccer Team disrespected the national flag of Islamic Republic of Iran."
The U.S. Soccer Federation, in a comment to CNN, said it changed the flag for 24 hours to show "support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights," but added that it always intended on changing it back.
In an Instagram post from the U.S. Soccer men's national team on Sunday promoting the Iran-U.S. match, the official Iranian flag was featured along with the designation "IR Iran," which stands for Islamic Republic.
U.S.-based Iranian activist Elica Le Bon commented on the U.S. team's move in an Instagram post, saying, "The U.S. took a huge stand here by removing the emblem from the fraudulent Islamic Republic's flag that has become for Iranians a symbol of torture, suffering, and oppression. This is NOT our flag. Thank you thank you thank you."
Soraya Beheshti, an Iranian national living in Dubai, told CNBC: "I think this is ultimately not productive in its impact on the regime, but it's nevertheless symbolically important and appreciated by millions of Iranians."
"It's a nice way to show solidarity with the protesters in an appropriate way without disrespecting the players, who clearly support the revolution too but are stuck between a rock and a hard place," she said.
Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that "any measure of support that can be given should be given to the Iranian people, be it official or unofficial," as they have been "bravely protesting for over two and a half months."
The Iranian government vociferously opposes the demonstrations, and has blamed them on what it says are foreign instigators including the United States and Israel. It has not provided evidence for these claims.
Protests have been taking place all over Iran since mid-September, rocking the government in what many are calling the biggest challenge to the Islamic Republic in decades. Ahead of its first World Cup match on Nov. 21, which was against England, the Iranian team refused to sing their national anthem, standing in stoic silence instead.
The protests erupted over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody. Amini, a Kurdish Iranian woman, was arrested for allegedly breaking Iran's strict rules on wearing the hijab, the Islamic head covering for women. She reportedly suffered multiple blows to the head, though Iranian authorities say she died from a pre-existing condition and deny any accusations of police brutality.
Team captain Alireza Jahanbakhsh previously said that he and his teammates would make a collective decision on whether they would make any sort of statement or act during the anthem in solidarity with the the anti-government demonstrators inside their country.
After the England match, Jahanbakhsh made a public statement expressing condolences and sorrow for Iranians who had lost loved ones during the protests and said that the situation in Iran was not good. But ahead of its Nov. 25 match against Wales, the team sang the Iranian anthem. It is not clear whether external or government pressure played a role in the change.
Iran's female-led protest movement has swelled into full-on calls from many Iranians for the downfall of the Islamic Republic. In response, Iranian authorities and police are arresting and killing demonstrators in a violent crackdown.
Videos showing women setting alight to their headscarves and crowds chanting "death to the dictator" amid burning cars, as well as security forces beating up protesters, have been shared widely on social media, despite the Iranian government's intermittent shutdown of the country's internet.
The U.S. State Department said it had no involvement in the U.S. Soccer Federation's decision to remove the Islamic Republic emblem from the Iranian flag in its posts.
"We look forward to a peaceful and competitive match on the field. The United States continues to find ways to support the Iranian people in the face of state-sponsored violence against women and a brutal crackdown against peaceful protestors," a State Department spokesperson told CNBC in an emailed statement.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have been especially high ever since the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal in 2018, which saw harsh sanctions re-imposed on the Islamic Republic. Its economy has buckled under the sanctions, which had been lifted thanks to the deal, which gave Iran economic relief in exchange for curbs to its nuclear program.
Iran is now enriching uranium at its highest levels ever, and negotiations to revive the deal under the Biden administration have been stalled for months.