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Iran IRGC Militia Member's Olympics Gold Stirs Controversy

Forty-one-year-old nurse Javad Foroughi won Iran's first gold at Tokyo 2020 in men's 10m air pistol on Saturday. Foroughi's win stirred huge controversy after activists quickly revealed that he is a member of the Revolutionary Guard's militia (Basij) which is often involved in crackdowns on protesters and was deployed to Syria many times.

Activists have demanded that the Olympics Committee withdraw Foroughi's gold medal which he immediately dedicated to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. "He is a member of the IRGC, a terrorist organization. The IOC [International Olympics Committee] can't remain indifferent to this," former world youth wrestling champion Sardar Pashaei tweeted July 24. Pashaei now lives in the US and has campaigned for an IOC sanction on Iran's Olympics program for ordering athletes to avoid competing against Israelis in international events.

Foroughi’s presence in Syria has led to accusations by Iranian activists that he might have been involved in military action as a serviceman in the Revolutionary Guard against Syrian government opponents, including civilian protesters. In an interview with the Revolutionary Guards-affiliated Tasnim News Agency after his win, Foroughi claimed that he had served in Syria as a nurse from 2013 to 2015. In an excerpt from an IRIB program in May Foroughi and another Basij member speak about their deployment to Syria and Lebanon as medical staff and reveal that they were stationed in Khan Tuman and Damascus even before the arrival of Islamic State group.

Activists on social media have also accused Foroughi of practicing marksmanship on "live targets". "This is an affront to the Olympics ideals," US-based activist Masih Alinejad tweeted after Foroughi won the medal. Others have posted a famous 2009 photo of a Basij sniper on the roof of a building whose resemblance to Foroughi is striking.

Iran's controversial Olympic Gold Medal winner Javad Foroughi (L) and an IRGC gunman resembling him.

The sniper was reportedly responsible for shooting at peaceful protesters around Tehran's Azadi square on June 18, 2009 during post-election demonstrations. One of the protesters, Soheil Arabi, was killed in the incident. Some social media users have pointed out that the man in the photo cannot be Foroughi who was 29 at the time.

State-controlled Iranian media, however, have eulogized Foroughi since he won his medal and praised him for dedicating it to Khamenei.

Iran's presence in the games has stirred another controversy when Iran's Nahid Kiani had to compete against former Taekwondo team member and 2016 Olympics bronze medalist Kimia Alizadeh. Alizadeh defected to Germany in 2020 to avoid competing for the Iranian Olympics team in protest to oppression of Iranian women. She is competing in Tokyo Olympics as a member of the Refugee Olympics Team.

Kimia Alizadeh in a bout during Tokyo Olympics. July 25, 2021

In its report of the competition, the reporter of the state-controlled broadcaster (IRIB) never mentioned Alizadeh by name only referring to her as "she" or "the rival" and even alleged that the referee was acting on orders to make her win. A commentator in the same program harshly attacked Alizadeh and dubbed her a "traitor" to the motherland and called her 2016 bronze "worthless". The report also censored the scene after the game ended with Alizadeh's win when she hugged her former teammate and former coach.

This is one of the instances where a serious division between a nation and its government, reveals itself, prominent sociologist Hossein Ghazian, told Iran International TV Sunday. According to Ghazian, as the official propaganda apparatus of those who support the ruling system portrays the opposition as minions of the "enemy" while they are considered as patriots by those who oppose the regime.

Fateme Karimkhan, a journalist with the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), in a tweet Sunday criticized those who call Alizadeh a "traitor".  Karimkhan charged that the real traitors were those whose actions has resulted in the emigration of the country's elite and athletes.

Karimkhan also made a reference to the pressure on Iranian athletes to lose in some games in international competitions to avoid being matched with Israeli athletes. The International Judo Federation in 2020 banned Iran's Judo Federation from competitions for “repeated and very severe breaches of the IJF statutes and the fundamental principles of Olympism” after several instances of such meddling were reported.

A British-Iranian journalist, political analyst and former correspondent of The National and journalist at Iran International
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