Iranian football fans celebrate at Vanak square in northern Tehran on June 18, 2013
© AFP
Iranian football fans celebrate at Vanak square in northern Tehran on June 18, 2013
Last updated: July 3, 2014

Sport, in the name of Iranian-US diplomacy

Banner Icon Dialogue Creative solutions are necessary to sustain more peaceful relations between Iran and America. Your Middle East's contributor Sam Khanlari offers you some real insight into what role sport can play.

One who knows him/herself and others
will find out here
that East and West
are no longer separable.

- Goethe

Both Iranian and American football fans were brought to their knees through tragic goals in injury time in Brazil last week, perhaps a cruel reminder that sport is intrinsically apolitical. While the teams temporarily provided company for the other’s misery, it serves as a reminder of how sport has helped bring the United States and Iran together, and in some instances, made them the “strongest allies”.

For what it’s worth, successes made through sport seldom carry over into the political sphere, and are instead overshadowed by presidential handshakes and meaningful diplomatic engagement.

Henry Kissinger spoke to NBC News on the initial stages of “ping-pong diplomacy” with China last week (June 27), and recalled that the Chinese invitation “created a public mood which was very helpful to us” to begin the discussion on America’s policy towards China. But without ping-pong diplomacy, Kissinger suggested, “we would have continued anyway, and we were well on the way to doing it.” Though he soon admitted, “it certainly gave our side more courage.”

While the impacts of ping-pong diplomacy in helping warm Sino-American relations have been generally overstated, reasonable analysts recognize the value of cultural exchanges that may result in further discussions. The tradition dates to Ancient Greece, when an Olympic Truce was upheld before and during the games to ensure the safety of athletes and supporters traveling to the events. This tradition, although nobly revived in the late 1990’s, was proven only symbolic during the 2008 South Ossetia war and 2014’s crisis in Ukraine.

"Successes made through sport seldom carry over into the political sphere"

Still, therein lies sport’s true allure: the ability to, for ninety minutes (in the World Cup’s case), forego political allegiances and join a social fabric that stretches worldwide and over a billion viewers long.

This sentiment, harnessed by Search for Common Ground (SFCG), helped organize an official visit by an Iranian wrestling team to the United States in 1998. “The Iranian government has made clear it doesn't want to do this on a government-to-government level, and sports is one avenue for that. The two countries are feeling each other out in a slow way,” SFCG president John Marks said in 2000.

The overture made through athletic exchanges could be accredited to Iranian President Khatami, a prominent face of the nation’s reformist movement whose reconciliatory tone following his election in 1997 aimed at engaging the west on a number of issues of common interest. In response, the United Nations proclaimed the year 2001 as a year of “Dialogue Among Civilizations”, but any progress was lost in the rubble of September 11.

While the two countries would later find themselves as allies in the battle to maintain wrestling’s status as an Olympic sport, football brought them together at France’s World Cup in 1998.

Following nearly two decades of political and social estrangement, American and Iranian footballs fans united in Lyon on June 21, 1998 for a match Iran would go on to win, although neither team would advance beyond the group stages of the tournament. As Sports Illustrated reminisces, “the Iranians (supporters) were quite friendly. They approached with smiles, shook our hands, linked arms. Feeling magnanimous, we posed for endless photographs.” Iran would score two goals before a late American header cemented a 2-1 final score. The Iranians celebrated through the night.

Soon after, the two countries’ football associations worked to organize a “soccer diplomacy” tour by Iran’s national team to the U.S for a series of friendlies on American soil in 2000. The trip culminated in a rematch of the World Cup between the U.S and Iran on January 16 in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, where nearly 50,000 Iranian-American fans assembled to witness the groundbreaking friendly end in a 1-1 draw.

Relations between the two run deeper on the wrestling mat, after an Iranian team first wrestled at the World Championships in the U.S in 1995. Having competed as adversaries in previous years, the two wrestling federations found themselves as allies (you can throw Cuba and Russia into that mix) in defense of the sport, after an International Olympic Committee Executive Board recommended its removal from the 2020 games last February.

"We'll be standing arm-in-arm with Iran, and we’ll be standing with Russia as we will with lots of other countries," said Mitch Hull, a director for U.S Wrestling, in 2013. “There’s no doubt that we are all together in this effort and we consider Iran one of our strongest allies in the sport of wrestling,” he continued.

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Following the Olympic Committee’s recommendation, organizers developed international freestyle wrestling competitions in New York and Los Angeles last May. Iranian, Russian, and American wrestlers first converged at a special event in New York City’s Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal, before American and Iranian wrestlers hit the mat at a meet in Los Angeles entitled “United 4 Wrestling” only days later.

As of now, negotiators from Iran and the P5+1 group (U.S, U.K, France, Russia, China + Germany) are preparing for a two-week diplomatic marathon scheduled from July 2-20 to hammer out a comprehensive nuclear agreement. Current talks have taken place under an interim six-month agreement enacted in January, and as the deadline approaches, creative solutions will be necessary to bridge remaining divides.

Most recently, Iran hosted the 83rd Federation of International Polo Ambassadors’ Cup in early June, with events spread out across the country in Tehran, Esfahan, and Shiraz. Polo fans gathered from across the world to celebrate the sport in the place of its birth, including American player Marco Elser, who at the event said there are “lots of reasons for these countries (the United States and Iran) to become friends and it’s going to happen. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

Sam Khanlari
Sam is currently co-editor of the Iran, Iraq, & Turkey pages at Muftah and operates as a freelance journalist based in Canada. Sam holds an Hon. B.A from the University of Toronto and publishes political commentary at SKhanlari.com
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