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US wrestlers barred from Iran in retaliation for Trump visa ban

As US-Iran relations deteriorate over visa bans and missile launches, sports exchanges are collateral damage.
Jordan Ernest Burroughs of U.S. (in blue) fights with Iran's Sadegh Saeed Goudarzi on the final of the Men's 74Kg Freestyle wrestling at the ExCel venue during the London 2012 Olympic Games August 10, 2012.                  REUTERS/Suhaib Salem (BRITAIN  - Tags: OLYMPICS SPORT WRESTLING)   - RTR36MXD

Iran has banned US wrestlers from participating in a major competition this month in retaliation for the Donald Trump administration’s decision to bar ordinary Iranians from visiting the United States.

The announcement marks a significant blow to people-to-people exchanges with Iran, which had been on the upswing during Barack Obama’s presidency.

The official IRNA news agency quoted Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi as saying that a special committee had looked into the issue. The committee was “opposed to [the] presence of the team after necessary studies,” Qasemi said.

On Jan. 27, the Trump administration without notice imposed a three-month ban on visitors from Iran and six other majority Muslim countries, causing chaos at airports around the world and massive protests in major American cities.

Among those affected were two Iranian archers who had been scheduled to attend the Archery World Cup 2017 in Las Vegas. Mehr News Agency said the executive committee in charge had “conveyed its apologies” to Iran for the problems caused for the Iranians who had been hoping to attend the event on Feb. 10.

Americans involved in promoting athletic exchanges with Iran expressed disappointment with Iran's decision to bar a delegation of 20 US athletes and coaches from the men’s freestyle Wrestling World Cup, scheduled to take place in the western province of Kermanshah on Feb. 16-17.

Bahman Baktiari, the executive director of the International Foundation for Civil Society, a Salt Lake City nonprofit that has facilitated US-Iran athletic exchanges, told Al-Monitor, “This is a very unfortunate development for our sport.”

According to Baktiari, American wrestling teams have visited Iran at least 15 times in the past two decades, and Iranian teams have come to the United States 16 times.

Iranian volleyball players have also visited the United States, and there had been hopes to attract basketball players as well.

“Sport exchanges provide the best foundation for the United States to build a lasting partnership with the Iranian people,” Baktiari said.

While wrestling is not the most popular sport in the United States, it is very popular in Iran and has become an important bridge between the two societies.

In 1998, after Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called for efforts to “break down the bulky wall of mistrust” between the United States and Iran, US wrestlers, with the encouragement of President Bill Clinton, traveled to Iran to compete in the first visit of an American athletic team since the 1979 revolution.

This reporter was present in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium when the US flag was displayed and Iranian fans cheered as much or more for the American wrestlers as for their own team. It was an emotional and political outpouring in support of ending the then 20-year enmity between the two countries.

Sports exchanges waned during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, but picked up again after Hassan Rouhani was elected president in 2013, which also led to an increase in bilateral contact between US and Iranian officials in connection with nuclear negotiations. In addition to bilateral visits, Iranian and American wrestlers joined Russian wrestlers in 2012 to lobby successfully to keep wrestling in the Olympic Games.

American wrestlers who have traveled to Iran have been overwhelmed by the hospitality of the Iranians, who have showered them with carpets and free meals.

Robby Smith, a champion US Greco-Roman wrestler, told Al-Monitor two years ago that the reception he received from Iranian fans was “the most incredible I’ve ever experienced.” In a competition with a Russian wrestler, Smith said that he was losing until an Iranian began beating a bass drum to encourage him. The crowd then began shouting, “R. Smith" and "USA, USA!” Smith recalled. In the streets of Tehran afterward, people rushed to take photos of him. “I felt like a Beatle,” he said.

The rejection of visas for the American wrestlers bodes ill for other types of exchanges in an atmosphere of rising hostility between the two governments. The Trump administration this week put Iran “on notice” over a missile test and sanctioned additional Iranian officials and entities on Feb. 3.

Prior to the announcement of new sanctions, Trump tweeted, “Iran is playing with fire — they don't appreciate how 'kind' President Obama was to them. Not me!”

However, the steps taken by the Trump administration so far have fallen most heavily on ordinary Iranians, not the Iranian government.

*Update: After a federal judge in Seattle temporarily blocked the visa ban from being enforced nationwide — a decision that was upheld by an appeals court early on Feb. 5 — Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, announced in a tweet that the American wrestlers would be able to come to Iran after all. Zarif wrote, “Following the court ruling suspending #MuslimBan & the requests from Iranian Wrestling Federation & FILA, US Wrestlers' visa will be granted.”