Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just released a video praising Iran. Well, sort of. He actually praised Iran’s soccer team — and kinda sorta maybe advocated for a revolution in Iran.
Here’s what happened: On Wednesday afternoon Netanyahu tweeted out a video praising the Iranian soccer team for its performance in the World Cup against Portugal — and its star player Cristiano Ronaldo.
“The Iranian team just did the impossible,” the prime minister says in the video. “To the Iranian people I say: You showed courage on the playing field, and today you showed the same courage in the streets of Iran.”
To understand this, you need to know two things: First, the Iranian men’s soccer team played really well at the World Cup. The squad beat Morocco, tied Portugal, and lost by only one goal to 2010 World Cup champion Spain — defying many expectations about how the team would perform on soccer’s biggest stage.
More important, though, Iranian citizens have taken to the streets in recent days to protest deteriorating economic conditions. The country’s currency is collapsing, and unemployment is rising, hurting working-class Iranians. Thousands of people flooded Tehran’s great bazaar on Tuesday calling for the regime to quickly and vastly improve the economy. The Iranian government blames the United States for the country’s economic woes.
These demonstrations are a big deal, experts say.
“They have taken place amongst the regime’s hitherto reliable basis of support — the members of the bazaar and the working classes,” Abbas Milani, an Iran expert at Stanford University, told NPR on June 26. “For over a hundred years, strikes in bazaars have been harbingers of change and invariably the clergy were allied with these merchants. Now the ruling clergy are the subject of the merchants’ wrath.”
Could you stop Ronaldo from scoring a goal?! pic.twitter.com/2M4m4GRsIv— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) June 27, 2018
This presented a pretty big opportunity for Netanyahu, who for years has railed against Iran and its government. With his new message, the Israeli leader is supporting the popular uprising as it challenges the ruling class — and using soccer as an excuse to do so.
“Can you imagine what would happen if the Iranian government, instead of wasting your money in Syria, in Yemen, and unnecessary wars in the Middle East, would start investing and solving these problems in Iran?” Netanyahu says in the video. “The solution to all these problems is the Iranian people.”
It’s likely that Netanyahu would have put out a similar message of support during the protests. But the World Cup provided as good an excuse as any to tap into popular sentiment — especially since the country’s team did so well in Russia over the past few weeks.
It’s also worth noting that Netanyahu played soccer in high school in Philadelphia, which explains his impressive soccer juggling skills in the video.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted his own message of support for Iranian protesters just three hours after Netanyahu’s message. “People are tired of the corruption, injustice & incompetence of their leaders,” the secretary said. “The world hears their voice.”
#Iran’s corrupt regime is wasting the country’s resources on Assad, Hizbollah, Hamas & Houthis, while Iranians struggle. It should surprise no one #IranProtests continue. People are tired of the corruption, injustice & incompetence of their leaders. The world hears their voice. pic.twitter.com/1iw9JAXKC0— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) June 27, 2018
The teams of Israel and the United States, by the way, did not qualify for the World Cup.