Improving US-Iran relations through sports

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My editor at LobeLog, John Feffer, has a wonderful article up today about maybe the most promising diplomatic front in the US-Iran relationship, wrestling:

When the Obama administration decided to explore ways of improving people-to-people relations with Iran, wrestling was a natural choice. Because Iranians excel at the sport, playing to their strength was a way of showing respect for Persian culture and history, much as ping pong was the natural choice for U.S.-Chinese détente in the 1970s.

More importantly, wrestling is a way to reach out beyond Iranian liberals. “Wrestling appeals to conservative elements,” Bahman Baktiari, the executive director of the International Foundation for Civil Society explained this week at an Atlantic Council event on public diplomacy with Iran. “Iranians start matches with prayers. Most of the logos in the arena are from the Koran. We are connecting to an important segment of Iranian civil society that we were not reaching before.”

It would be hard to overestimate wrestling’s fundamental connection with Iranian culture. Koshti Pahlavani, or “heroic wrestling,” and the traditional athletic discipline around it, has roots in pre-Islamic Iran, though it’s also grafted a lot of especially Sufi elements onto it over the centuries. The ping-pong:China analogy is very apt.

There’s so much to this piece worth reading, including the story of the 2014 Iranian volleyball team’s visit to Los Angeles for a series of exhibition matches against the US, and the Iranian player who left LA thinking that he didn’t want to say “Death to America” anymore. If it were allowed to proceed naturally, via cultural engagement like sports competitions, and then to slowly increase, you could actually see genuine improvement in the US-Iran relationship in this post-nuclear deal period, over time, and maybe even a corresponding change in Iran’s political scene. It’s unlikely that it will be allowed to develop that way, given how many crises the region is facing and how central Tehran is to many of them.

The US and Iranian volleyball teams in a 2015 FIVB World League match in Los Angeles (Payvand)

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