Why Iran’s flag is at the center of controversy at the World Cup

In 1980, the newly installed Islamic Republic replaced the Lion and Sun on the country’s tricolor flag with a tulip-shaped emblem—making both into potent political symbols.

Iran has been in turmoil since the September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been in the custody of Iran’s morality police. Months of upheaval and demonstrations for women’s rights in Iran have spilled over into an unlikely place—the soccer pitch at the World Cup.

Last week, Iranian fans carrying the country’s pre-revolutionary flag were barred from attending its game against England. Then the U.S. Soccer Federation sparked a firestorm when it displayed Iran’s flag on its social media accounts without its iconic tulip emblem. 

(5 things to know about Qatar, the 2022 World Cup hosts.)

Modified versions of Iran’s tricolor flag have long been used in Iran and its diaspora, both among those who protest the regime's human rights violations and those who are nostalgic for the time before the revolution. Here’s what you need to know about the flag and the potent meaning of its motifs.

The colors of the flag

Both the official Iranian flag and the pre-revolutionary flag that is sometimes flown in protest share horizontal stripes of green, white, and red.

These colors are laden with symbolism. Green—believed to be Prophet Muhammad’s favorite color—represents Islam and adorns the flags of several Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria. White is linked to freedom, writes British journalist Tim Marshall in A Flag Worth Dying For, and red is associated with “martyrdom, bravery, fire, and love.”

Although these colors had been used in early versions of the banner, the Iranian tricolor flag was officially enshrined in the Constitution of 1906.

The meaning of the flag's emblem—and why it changed

The tulip motif at the center of today’s flag is a relatively new addition—and took the place of one of Iran’s most beloved emblems, the Lion and Sun, or Shir o Khorshid.

The Lion and Sun symbol dates back to 12th century Persia, where it gained popularity as an ancient astrological sign of the sun in the house of Leo—which likely represented power and royalty. Over subsequent centuries, the Lion and Sun adorned the country’s flag in various configurations—at times a symbol of the two pillars of society, the state and religion, or as a symbol of the monarchy. 

(History's first superpower sprang from an ancient Iran.)

In 1979, however, the Iranian Revolution overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and abolished the monarchy. The new leaders of the Islamic Republic turned to architect Hamid Nadimi to come up with a flag design that Marshall writes would “signify a break with the era of the shah, but at the same time reassure an ancient culture that this was not Year Zero.”

Nadimi’s solution was to replace the Lion and Sun in 1980 with a red tulip—which had long been important in Shia Islam as a symbol of Husayn Ibn Ali al-Hussein, Muhammad’s grandson who died a martyr during a 7th century battle. This tulip is comprised of four crescent-shaped petals and one stem, or sword, that form the word Allah and symbolize the five pillars of Islam.

Nadimi also added a stylized Arabic inscription of the words Allahu Akbar, or God is great, across the bottom of the flag’s green stripe and across the top of its red stripe.

(See the evolution of over 2,000 world flags in under 5 minutes.)

Modern flag protests

Activists have since used variations of Iran’s tricolor flag to signal their resistance to the Islamic Republic. During the 2009 Green Movement, for example, pro-democracy advocates displayed an emblem-free version of the flag in an act of defiance against the ideology of their government.

Although displaying the Lion and Sun is illegal in Iran, it remains for many a nostalgic symbol of the pre-revolutionary era. In 2015, a correspondent for The Guardian spotted the illicit Lion and Sun on “countless pendants, rings, and wall hangings” during a visit to a Tehran bazaar. Some protesters also display the flag to call for a return to the monarchy.

Now, the flag has become a flashpoint once again the recent demonstrations over the death of Mahsa Amini—both on the streets of Tehran and at the World Cup.

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