Cracks Appearing In Iran Regarding Their “Avoid Competing Against Israelis in Sports” Policy


Last month, I posted about what I thought may have been a first: an Iranian athlete being banned for throwing their match to avoid competing against an Israeli. In this case, it was Alireza Karimi (aka Alireza Karimimachiani), and he was banned for 6 months for throwing his bout against Alikhan Zhabrilov – all to avoid competing against Israel’s Uri Kalashnikov. His coach Hamidreza Jamshidi was also banned.

There has been an interesting follow-up to this story: a little over a week ago, the head of Iran’s wrestling federation resigned after criticizing authorities for letting athletes be punished because of the country’s ban on competing against Israel. And he was soon followed by a number of wrestling officials, who resigned en masse.

The controversy over not allowing Iranian athletes to compete against Israelis continued as the former president of Iran’s Wrestling Federation Rasoul Khadem released a new statement telling Iranian politicians not to sacrifice the country’s national champions to further their own political agenda.

Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) on Saturday March 3 quoted Khadem as having accused Iranian officials of “lying” and “indifference to the status of Iran’s national champions.”

Khadem added that Iranian state officials treat Iranian athletes’ international presence and awards as part of some kind of entertainment for the people.

Khadem resigned his post as president of the Iranian Wrestling Federation on February 28 after calling on Iranian state officials to declare a clear policy about competing with Israeli athletes, and to stand firm by that policy.

Khadem said upon his resignation “I cannot lie to the wrestling community in order to maintain my position.”

One day later, scores of local wrestling officials also resigned in support of Khadem’s move.

Tayebeh Siavashi, a member of the Iranian Parliament (Majles) has described the mass resignation as “shocking.”

President Hassan Rouhani’s administration and Iran’s Supreme National Security Council have remained silent about Khadem’s resignation and his protest to the unwritten rule that prevents Iranian athletes from competing with Israelis.

Khadem has said in his new statement “Iranian political and military officials either do not understand the matter or pretend not to get the point.”

Khadem further told Iranian politicians that if they really believe in what they say about “the Zionist regime”, they should take up arms and move ahead of the national champions and not hide behind them.

Khadem’s remark could be an answer to Baseej commander Gholamhossein Gheibparvar who has denounced Khadem’s views without naming him, saying, “The issue of Israel is not a matter of personal preference and should not be discussed openly.”

Khadem, a renowned wrestler and a gold medallist, called for diplomatic support for the athletes and told the officials “If we have to lose, come forward and let us lose together.”

Meanwhile, MP Tayebeh Siavashi, a member of the Majles cultural committee has said in a post on her Twitter “Mass resignation of the country’s wrestling officials is a shocking development.”

Siavashi wrote: “Although the policy’s objective is not to recognize Israel, but Iranian athletes say the world does not understand this behavior because this is an undeclared policy which is not even popular inside Iran.”

Siavashi said in another Tweet “Many wrestlers have said that they always remember that they could have won the medal.”

While I do not believe this will lead to a change in policy any time soon, it is interesting to note this discontent playing out so publicly.

Update: Yep, no time soon.

Update: Still related to this story, the site Bloody Elbow, which describes itself as “The Official Mixed Martial Arts Blog of the SB Nation”, has covered this story – but could not resist adding a few jabs at Israel and the US along the way.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised Karimi for throwing the bout. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also responded to the situation; saluting Karimi for his seeming desire to compete against an Israeli. Netanyahu also used the incident for a propaganda stunt, asking Israelis to tweet him images of them playing sports with people from different backgrounds.

Wrestling has been used by Iran in the past to improve relations with foreign nations. Bloody Elbow’s Karim Zidan wrote about how Iran and the US stabilized their relations, through wrestling, in the 1990s. Though, Zidan writes, that progress risks being undone by the policies of current US President Donald Trump.

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