While Iran and the United States have been engaged in near constant hostility for the last 38 years, sport — especially wrestling — has been one of the few arenas where cultural diplomacy has flourished without the interruption of geopolitical tensions. That seems to be no more. In a tit for tat, on Feb. 3, Iran blocked American wrestlers from participating in the Freestyle World Cup competition after US President Donald Trump signed an executive order Jan. 27 for a 90-day ban on the entry of citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran.
After the Feb. 4 decision by US federal court Judge James Robart to temporarily suspend Trump’s ban, Tehran reversed its ban, announcing that the US wrestlers would be permitted to participate in the games in Kermanshah to be held Feb. 16-17.
Bahram Ghassemi, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that in addition to Robart’s ruling on the “discriminatory limitations against Iranian citizens” being a factor, the Iranian Wrestling Federation and the International Federation of Wrestling had requested that Iran lift its ban on the US wrestlers. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted news of the ban's reversal on Feb. 5.
Iran’s archery team has also been caught up in Trump’s ban. Armin Raisi and Armin Pakzad were scheduled to travel to Las Vegas to participate in the 2017 Vegas Shoot, a prestigious indoor archery tournament, on Feb. 10-12, but according to Mohammadali Shojaei, the president of the Iran Archery Federation, the players have not been issued visas, so the team will thus not be able to participate in the championships. Shojaei made the announcement on the same day the ban on American wrestlers was reversed.
The ban on American athletes was criticized domestically in Iran. Before the reversal was announced, outspoken lawmaker Ali Motahari tweeted Feb. 4, “We denounce Mr. Trump’s ban of entry for the citizens of 7 Muslim countries into America, then we ourselves do the same thing to American wrestlers.” Rasoul Khadem, the president of the Iranian Wrestling Federation, wrote an open letter to Youth Affairs and Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar requesting reconsideration of the ban against the American wrestlers. He said that the American wrestlers had given numerous interviews in which they asked that Iran ignore the “un-humanitarian and immoral policies of the new [US] administration” and allow them to participate in the World Cup competition there.
Also on Feb. 4, a group of 72 university professors from Iran’s prestigious Sharif University requested that the Foreign Ministry not reciprocate Trump’s ban. In their open letter, they instead asked that for the next 90 days — the length of the US ban on Iranians — that Iran permit American citizens to travel to Iran without a visa and the usual administrative restrictions to “experience the hospitable and peaceful Muslims up close.”
Trump's approach to Iran has left many Iranian analysts and the media speculating about an appropriate response. A number of op-eds have urged Tehran to show restraint in the face of a US administration that seems intent on a more confrontational approach toward Iran. Hossein Malaek, the former Iranian ambassador to China under President Mohammad Khatami, wrote Feb. 5 that the issue of Iran has the potential to bring Democrats and Republicans closer and that Iran must be conscious about not becoming a “scapegoat” in Trump’s attempts to resolve domestic political quarrels.
Conservative analysts have instead urged President Hassan Rouhani's administration to take a more confrontational stance and have criticized it for its previous compromises, particularly on the nuclear deal. Mohsen Rezaei, the secretary of the Expediency Council, tweeted Feb. 4, “The outcome of the [initiative by President Khatami for a] Dialogue Among Civilizations was [US President George W.] Bush’s threats, and the outcome of the nuclear deal was Trump’s threat.” Both Khatami and Rouhani attempted to establish better ties with Democratic presidents, who were then followed by Republican presidents who adopted much harsher policies toward Iran.
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