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Will the FIFA World Cup help bridge Iran-US gaps? 

The US men's national soccer team is in the most politically charged group along with Iran and possibly Ukraine, among other teams.
Fans wave US and Iranian flags during the World Cup 2006.

At a time when tensions between Iran and the West are elevated and the fate of the 2015 nuclear deal hangs in the balance, a forthcoming athletic encounter resembling what pundits call “ping-pong diplomacy” is revitalizing hopes that there are still opportunities for narrowing gaps between the two sides. 

The draw for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar was announced in early April, and Iran, one of the four Asian representatives, was lined up to play the United States and England. The fourth team in Group B, dubbed the most politically charged group in the vaunted event, will be chosen through the European playoffs between Scotland, Ukraine and Wales. 

As soon as the draw determined the matchups in the first World Cup hosted by a Middle East nation, focus was shifted to the Iran-US faceoff, which will be their second meeting in a World Cup. In 1998, Iran defeated the United States 2-1 in their first showpiece when the two squads exchanged flowers and jerseys as an indication of cordiality while their governments continued to be at daggers drawn. 

There have been tectonic ups and downs in the timeline of Iran-US relations since the much-hyped tourney 24 years ago, including the first direct negotiations between the two states that preceded the signing of the Iran nuclear deal.  

But with former US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018 and his restoration of the onerous sanctions, as well as the subsequent escalations that culminated in the assassination of Iran’s IRGC Quds Force commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the two rivals are back to square one in a vicious cycle of bitterness, and the detente that was germinating has unraveled.  

Talks to bring round the nuclear deal that could serve as a precursor to the improvement of Iran-US ties at the same time as dissipating international concerns over Tehran’s nuclear activities have been stagnant for over a month now, and the Iranian leadership has once again ratcheted up its anti-Western, anti-US rhetoric, which it traditionally doubles down on in times of crisis.  

Ever since Tehran and Washington severed diplomatic relations in 1980, academicians, artists, entrepreneurs, journalists and civil society activists have not given up on the idea of espousing people-to-people exchanges and pleading for track II diplomacy. In the absence of a US embassy in Tehran, Iran is the 13th country of origin of international students in the United States, represented by more than 12,000 students as of 2019. The population of Iranian students in America is larger than that of British, Turkish and German students. 

In 2015, the Institute of International Education (IIE) dispatched a historic delegation of US university envoys to Iran, which included academics from Ball State University, Pitzer College, Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey, the University of Southern California and Wayne State University, shortly after announcing the opening of its IIE Iran Higher Education Initiative. 

Seven years earlier, the Association of American Universities coordinated a high-profile visit to Iran by presidents of six US universities, including Cornell University and Carnegie Mellon University, to meet their Iranian counterparts and engage in dialogue on the prospects of academic cooperation. 

Similar visits of this nature happened occasionally, and several top-notch US journalists, artists and academics traveled to Iran, reciprocated by dozens of Iranian celebrities and artists who visited the United States to hold exhibitions, give talks, run events or take part in festivals. Sports have also functioned as a stepping stone for engagement, and bouts in a number of disciplines, especially wrestling as a favorite activity of both Iranians and Americans, have put the spotlight on the potential for the two nations to patch up bonds even when the governments don’t see eye-to-eye. 

US national soccer team coach Gregg Berhalter and Iran’s Croatian manager Dragan Skocic have similarly refused to comment on the political implications of the upcoming match scheduled for Nov. 29. But the bottom line is that the showdown can invite leaders in the two countries to start adopting a more pragmatic attitude and admit that despite years of grievances piled up they can still work toward a future in which they co-exist or address some of their differences. 

“I don't think one match can lessen tensions, because the tensions are longstanding, and they’re emanating from governments from longstanding mistrust and disappointment. However, if people can meet on the field with respect and perhaps share more than one match, I believe any human exchange is better than none,” said Persis Karim, chair of the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies and professor in the Comparative and World Literature Department at San Francisco State University. 

Karim believes even if the two governments are not ready for sustainable dialogue, the people are prepared and realize that the costs of not talking are high: “There must be more than sports. People should be allowed to travel, to get visas, to visit one another, to receive artists and musicians without the constant threat of being canceled.” 

“But there are so many aftereffects of the Trump administration’s policies that continue to impede people-to-people contact beyond sports encounters. The sanctions on Iran contribute to this too,” she told Al-Monitor. 

Most observers note that the antagonistic discourse the Iranian government peddles in rallying the public round the flag of anti-Western sentiments, retaliated by the corporate media in Europe and the United States portraying Iran in a cynical, negative light, makes rapprochement a daunting task. But initiating understanding is not impossible, even in a climate of heightened mistrust and friction. 

Iraj Bashiri, professor of history at the University of Minnesota and an expert on Iranian affairs, notes backchannel diplomacy and cultural and athletic exchanges can create periods of cooperation, but they will be ephemeral unless the two countries resolve their differences fundamentally.  

“If we place the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar in the context of the past Iran-US and Iran-England interactions, the conclusion we reach, irrespective of the degree of coverage and hype, can hardly be inspiring,” he said. 

“Nevertheless, the same spark that creates animus has the potential of creating mutual understanding and compromise. I tend to favor the latter with the hope that in the end the constructive efforts of those who work tirelessly, in sports and other fields, prevail,” he told Al-Monitor.  

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