Tehran, Iran – Iran wants to give Cristiano Ronaldo and other foreign football players who will soon travel to Tehran a special SIM card that will allow them to access the internet without restrictions – something Iranian citizens cannot do – which has angered some in Iran.
Reza Darvish, the president of Persepolis FC, the football club that will face Ronaldo’s Al Nassr in an AFC Champions League tie next week in Tehran, told state television on Tuesday that some people “who want to tarnish our reputation” tell footballers not to come to Iran because they won’t have access to unfiltered internet.
“I have spoken with the CEO of [major mobile carrier] Irancell, and I told him we want to give players and personnel Irancell SIM cards with unrestricted internet so they can use it from the time they enter Iran till the time they leave,” he said.
The internet in Iran is heavily restricted, and tens of thousands of websites and all major global messaging and social media platforms are blocked.
The restrictions were only significantly ramped up after mid-September 2022 when the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody sparked protests across the country that lasted for months.
At the time, authorities argued that foreign platforms, which cannot be locally supervised, were being used to endanger the national security of the country as foreign powers were accused of supporting “riots” across Iran.
That is when WhatsApp and Instagram, the last two major unfiltered platforms in Iran, were also blocked.
Tens of millions of Iranians regularly use virtual private networks (VPNs) that mask users’ location to circumvent local restrictions, but the authorities have heavily clamped down on these tools as well since last year.
Users now often have to resort to using several VPNs and switching connections regularly amid the restrictions, a time and energy-consuming process that also drives up the cost of using the internet.
Since last year, authorities have maintained that they will only unblock major foreign apps when their parent companies agree to open offices in Iran and position permanent representatives who would answer state inquiries when needed. No company has acceded to this demand so far.
‘Lucky’ to use local messengers
As the anniversary of the protests approaches, internet observatory NetBlocks reported internet disruptions this week, but Information and Communications Technology Minister Issa Zarepour said disruptions were due to upgrades to the network.
⚠️ Confirmed: An internet disruption has been registered in #Iran for the second night in a row from ~1:00 am local time; Network data show connectivity falling down to 71% of ordinary levels 📉 pic.twitter.com/LVQkXiEqvg
— NetBlocks (@netblocks) September 10, 2023
Zarepour, who like his predecessors, has maintained the government and his ministry have no hand in internet filtering and decisions come from higher security bodies, also told reporters on Wednesday that officials are “reassessing” some of the restrictions but did not elaborate.
Meanwhile, tourism minister Ezzatollah Zarghami, who had last year become the first senior official to propose special SIM cards for tourists so they could access unrestricted internet, on Wednesday made a joke that Ronaldo would have to use local messaging services to contact his family back home.
“If Ronaldo comes to Iran, he should naturally install the Bale and Eitaa platforms,” he said, in reference to two major government-supported platforms.
“He can contact his wife and children and neighbourhood friends and everyone else, and tell them all to install them as well, and he should feel lucky to be able to do that too!” he told reporters with a smile after a cabinet meeting.
But the news has not been well-received by many Iranians online, who have argued this is an insult to them and discrimination against them as citizens.
“I don’t want Ronaldo or any other star to come to Iran for one minute if it means that they will receive more services than an Iranian citizen,” tweeted journalist Ehsan Bodaghi. “This is a belittling of every single Iranian. I wish you would understand that Ronaldo doesn’t deserve more rights and services than Iranians in their own country.”
Journalist Sahar Tolouee pointed out how women have faced the same type of discrimination for years when it comes to football, but through being shut out of stadiums.
“When you gentlemen went to stadiums with tickets in your hands and said ‘are stadiums any place for a woman?’ us women felt the same humiliation of Ronaldo and his team getting internet without filters, and to be honest we still feel the same,” she wrote on the platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
The Azadi stadium in Tehran is expected to be empty of all spectators when Ronaldo and his teammates play Persepolis FC due to an Asian Football Confederation (AFC) ban over licensing regulations.
Other major players like Neymar and Karim Benzema are also coming to Iran, as their respective teams Al Hilal and Al Ittihad are scheduled to play against Nassaji Mazandaran and Sepahan on October 2 and 3.
The AFC said earlier this month that the football federations of Iran and Saudi Arabia have reached a “groundbreaking” deal to resume home-and-away football matches after a seven-year rift that came with cutting bilateral relations in 2016.
Since the AFC brought in rules to allow the two sides’ teams to play on neutral ground in 2016, Iranian and Saudi Arabian teams have faced each other in stadiums in Dubai and Doha.
Tehran and Riyadh agreed to restore diplomatic relations in a China-brokered agreement in March, and last week officially deployed their ambassadors to their respective capitals.