Karim Zidan looks at the sports diplomacy that strengthened US-Iran ties in the 1990s, and how it was nearly interrupted by President Trump’s restrictive immigration plan.

On Jan. 27, President Donald Trump issued an executive order restricting travel to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries. While the decision primarily affected refugees and immigrants, it also threatened the longstanding international structure of sporting events.

Hours following Trump’s restrictive immigration policy was announced, various sports entities, including the NBA, MLS, and the UFC, had contacted State Department to determine how this would impact their respective businesses. The EO also threatened U.S. bids for the Olympic Games and World Cup. However, it was the policy’s impact on amateur wrestling that resulted in retaliatory action from Iran.

As one of the seven nations mentioned in Trump’s executive order, Iran banned US wrestlers from participating in the 2017 freestyle World Cup hosted in Kermanshah. Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said the new US administration left Iran no other choice but to ban the wrestlers from the competition scheduled for February 16-17. Given that the USA wrestling team has competed in Iran since 1998 and visited the Islamic country 15 times for tournaments, the ban was viewed as a bitter end to a sports relationship that promoted increased ties between the two countries.

Yet on February 3rd, a federal judge in Washington state temporarily blocked the travel ban, which forced the U.S. government to suspend enforcement of Trump’s executive order. As a result, the Iranian government reversed their decision to deny entry visas to U.S. wrestlers. “Following the court ruling suspending #MuslimBan & the requests from Iranian Wrestling Federation & FILA, US Wrestlers’ visa will be granted,” Iran’s foreign minster, Javad Zarif, said on twitter.

Had the travel ban not been reversed by a federal judge in the U.S., it would have spelled the end of decades of sports diplomacy through wrestling between the United States and Iran, two nations with a relationship previously stunted by political tension and ideological differences. Embracing the significance of wrestling as a diplomatic tool between the two nations begins by understanding the political climate in the late ‘90s.

The Invitation

In 1998, an unlikely U.S. wrestling team became the first sports team to visit Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. After a 20-year absence where all but a few Americans set foot on Iranian soil, 16 wrestlers with the American flag emblazoned on their tracksuits arrived to compete at the Takhti Cup. The historic moment came about after Iranian officials met with USA Wrestling earlier that year in an attempt to re-establish ties through sports. The Iranian government promised the American athletes a warm welcome, which they lived up to through goodwill gestures like waving fingerprint requirement imposed on Americans entering Iran.

Wrestling was an understandable choice for Iran to approach diplomatic ties through. The sport is one of the most popular in Iran and is rooted in centuries of historical significance. Known as koshti in modern Persian, wrestling is a tradition that dates back to antiquity and was used to prepare warriors for the battlefield, among other things. Iranian nobility of the Safavid period used wrestling as a form of entertainment. Persian rulers and nobility would select champions (Pahlavi) to compete for them, a practice that lasted centuries.

While the Persian empire bears little resemblance to the Iranian governments in power since the Islamic revolution, wrestling remains significant. Iran governments alternated between embracing and lambasting their Persian pre-Islamic ties over the years, though quickly realized that promoting wrestling as a national sport had its benefits. When Ali-Reza Soleimani defeated an American wrestler at the 1989 world wrestling championships, it was viewed as a moment of celebration for a country that had just come out of a horrific eight-year war against Iraq. Shortly thereafter, the Iranian government led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, increased national funding for wrestling programs, though it had yet to become a tool for improved relations with the West. At the time, it was strictly an expression for national pride.

Ping-Pong Diplomacy

By 1997, reformist Mohammad Khatami had ascended to the presidency in Iran. He advocated increased relations with the United States and stemmed the tide for wrestling to become a tool for sports diplomacy similar to the “ping-pong diplomacy” that took place between the United States and China in the early 1970s.

During President Richard Nixon’s tenure, the United States and China had already gone two decades without diplomatic or economic relations between them, dating back to the start of the Korean War. Following an invitation from China given to U.S. athletes at the the 31st World Table Tennis Championships, the two nations began a gradual exchange of athletes that helped establish ties through unorthodox methods that did not include the use of diplomats. This eventually allowed Nixon to lift the embargo on China in 1971 and visit Beijing the following year. Iran looked to replicate China’s strategy 27 years later.

Despite deceased Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s forbiddance of any official diplomatic relationship between Iran and the United States, Khatami managed to circumvent the demand through international sports and personal interactions between athletes. Through a single invitation to attend a wrestling tournament in Tehran in 1998, Khatami effectively told the U.S. that Iran was ready to establish new relations.

It was nothing short of a breakthrough.

The cultural exchange was a success and the U.S. wrestlers were welcomed warmly in Iran for the tournament. It thawed relations between the two nations, even if only on a societal level instead of a political one. The wrestling teams became the standard bearers of sports diplomacy and that effect transferred over to soccer during the 1998 World Cup.

During the group stages of the prestigious tournament, the United States met Iran on French soil in what was considered to be one of the most politically charged matches in World Cup history. However, both teams impressed with their displays of sportsmanship throughout the match and were eventually given the FIFA Fair Play award. The animosity between the two nations had begun to subside.

Changing Perception

Since the 1998 Takhti Cup, the US wrestling team has visited Iran 15 times for tournaments, while Iranian wrestlers have made 16 visits to the US since the 1990s. Though political tensions rose during the George W. Bush administration, the wrestlers forged ahead with apolitical competitiveness and friendly interactions. Yet once President Obama took office in 2009, the White House once again engaged in wrestling diplomacy with Iran.

“We did something rare in DC: we engaged in a moment of introspection. Was our policy working? Were we being heard inside Iran in the way that we wanted to?” explained Gregg Sullivan, senior adviser for public diplomacy at the Office of Iranian Affairs at the State Department. “We felt that we were far too heavily weighted on the punitive side. We were not giving a sufficient message of hope to those willing to work collaboratively with us. We began to restore our public diplomacy program in the Persian language and with exchanges in arts, culture, and sports.”

One of the primary impacts this initiative had was prompting Homeland Security to better facilitate the issuing of visas to Iranian citizens. This, in turn, led to a sharp increase of Iranian students studying at American universities, further adding to the cultural exchange of ideas. According to Sullivan, only 10 other countries send more students to the United States than Iran. The restrictive immigration policy that President Trump issued in an executive order not only impacted decades of sports diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran, it also affected tens of thousands of Iranian students who clamoured for opportunities to study abroad.

Wrestling relations between the two countries peaked in 2014 during the Greco-Roman World Cup. That year, USA Wrestling opted to send a female competitor, Christina Kiki Kelley, to a country where it was strictly forbidden for women to compete. While Iran was skeptical about the U.S. team selection, Kelley dressed in modest clothes and a hijab to allay concerns. She was surprisingly well received in Iran, so much so that the Minster of Sports asked her to stay a few extra days to tour the country and participate in interviews. An Iranian official later confided in her that he wanted to use this opportunity as a catalyst to form Iran’s first female team.

“I don’t paint countries with broad brush strokes,” Kelley said. “As long as what I’m doing and saying is beneficial to USA Wrestling, to my country, to other women and athletes throughout the world, I’ll continue to speak.”

Kelley wasn’t the only U.S. wrestler accepted by the Iranian crowds that year. The entire American team was showered in cheers whenever they stepped on the mat. It was a reminder that, despite the political tension that marred diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran, they could still find cultural similarities to humanize them and bring their people together.

“I never felt a threat or any hatred,” said Robby Smith. “All I felt was love.”

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