By Payam Younesipour
November 12, 2021
The suspiciously outsized luggage pushed by Iran’s national football team when they touched down at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport this week – bags which promptly disappeared – has caught the attention of the Lebanese government.
On Wednesday, Lebanese Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi wrote on Twitter: “I have sent a letter to the leadership of the airport security service after pictures circulated showing foreign football players coming to Beirut, with a large number of bags, and the accompanying comments about their failure to undergo baggage inspection procedures upon arrival at the airport.” That evening, the Lebanese Interior Ministry published a statement confirming the same, adding that Mawlawi expected a detailed report on the matter “as soon as possible” so that any “necessary measures” could be taken.
Iran’s Team Melli was in Beirut for a World Cup qualifying match against Lebanon, which it won 2-1 this evening. Photos of the team’s arrival caused consternation; along with their regular bags, the players were carrying massive suitcases bearing the logo of the Iranian Football Federation. IranWire sources later confirmed these bags were not with the team when they got to the hotel, begging the question as to what was inside.
Iran’s Khabar-e Varzeshi newspaper had a strange explanation for the presence of large, uniform and suspicious suitcases the players were spotted carrying: “On the trip from Tehran to Beirut, a large number of team members were not present and other players had to carry clothes and medical equipment.” The newspaper claimed that those in the pictures, who flew from Iran to Beirut, were carrying the equipment of Iranian team members going from Lebanon to Europe. It offered no explanation as to why any Iranian team members bound for Europe could not have carried their own baggage.
The Lebanese authorities’ sensitivity over airport baggage oversight, meanwhile, stems in part from the past acknowledgement by leaders of both Hamas and Hezbollah that they received large quantities of “financial support” from the IRGC – in the case of the former, literally $22m stuffed into suitcases, a gift from former Quds Force commander Ghasem Soleimani.
If the Lebanese government’s intelligence is correct, how the Iranian team managed to bypass airport security measures might be a story in its own right. Back in May 2008 the Lebanese government controversially sacked Wafiq Shaqir, a Shia colonel and member of Shia political party and militant group the Amal Group, from his post as head of security at Beirut Airport. At the time Ammar Mousavi, a member of Hezbollah’s political bureau, called the change Hezbollah’s “red line”. Ever since then, appointments to the post have been a hot-button issue, with Hezbollah insisting it should have a say in the choice.