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Iranian footballer who criticised Tehran's foreign policy summoned by sports ministry

Voria Ghafouri, who plays for the national team, said Iranian policies in the Middle East were hurting the country
Voria Ghafouri plays for the Iranian national football team and Esteghlal football team (AFP)

Iran's sports ministry summoned a popular Iranian footballer on Tuesday after his criticism of Tehran's foreign policy angered Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Voria Ghafouri, who plays for the Iranian national team and Tehran's Esteghlal football club, said that Iran's foreign policy in the Middle East is hurting the Iranian people. 

The 31-year-old footballer voiced his criticism by addressing Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javid Zarif directly in an Instagram post, later expanding on his thoughts in an interview. 

"Mr Zarif, you who say that you are proud you are under pressure because of Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen and Syria, know that it's not you who is under pressure," Ghafouri told his 731,000 followers on Instagram. 

The footballer doubled down on his comments in an interview with local media afterwards, saying: "All people are under pressure, and they [the leadership] say things that make things worse."

Ghafouri was summoned hours after Khamenei addressed an audience where he criticised the right-back during a speech commemorating the death of 27 Revolutionary Guards. 

"Some people who take advantage of the country's security to work and play sport should know that this is how security is ensured," Khamenei said. 

Following Ghafouri's summoning, Iran's Sports Minister Bijan Zolfagharnasb called on all athletes not to comment on politics. 

Zolfagharnasb's call comes amid broader concerns by Iranian authorities over growing discontent among Iranians over the economy. 

Iran Sanctions 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Monday said that US sanctions on Iran have proven to be "more difficult than military war".

During the inauguration of the Persian Gulf Star refinery in the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas, Rouhani said that America had been "imposing the harshest sanctions" on Iran. 

He used his remarks to also reach out to Iran's regional neighbours and said he was ready to work and build bridges with several Gulf countries. 

"Iran is ready to work with regional states to preserve security in the Middle East ... Our enemies, America and Israel, want to create division among Iranians," Rouhani said in his speech in southern Iran, broadcast live on state TV.

"We want to establish brotherly ties with all countries of the region ... Iran has never started any aggression in the region."

Iran has opposed Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as other members of a Saudi-led coalition, through allies fighting in Yemen. 

They were also on opposite sides in the Syrian war, where Iran has played a key role in backing the government of President Bashar al-Assad.