Iranian sports teams fair well globally and are supported by the majority of the population, but interference by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has constrained their potential and elicited wide condemnation, including from international sporting bodies.
Suppression by the authorities may now mean national teams will be barred by international organizations from competing in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan and raises wider human rights concerns around Iranian sports.
The International Judo Federation (IJF) has officially banned Iran from competing in any of its competitions. A final suspension notice was issued on 22 October 2019 after it emerged that on 28 August, Saeid Mollaei was allegedly directed to withdraw from competing to avoid fighting against the Israeli Sagi Muki by the president of the Iran Judo Federation and possibly two other high-ranking Iranian sports officials.
The Iran Judo Federation denies the claims, arguing that Mollaei made them up to strengthen a change of nationality process.
However, the IJF received supporting information from Abdullo Muradov, a Farsi speaker who was with the athlete when he received a message during the World Judo Championships in Tokyo from Iran’s first deputy minister of sport as well as a call from the Iranian National Olympic Committee’s president asking the athlete not to fight.
Calling the directives a breach of its charter, the IJF went ahead and upheld the suspension. Mollaei, 27, ignored the orders and proceeded to compete against Matthias Casse, losing to the Belgian. Instead of returning to Iran, he went to Germany and is claiming asylum, according to IJF President Marius Vizer.
“Even if the authorities of my country told me that I can go back without any problems, I am afraid. I am afraid of what might happen to my family and to myself,” he told the IJF in an interview. “I want to compete wherever I can. I live in a country whose law does not permit me to. We have no choice; all athletes must comply with it. All I did today was for my life, for a new life.”
Iran has banned its athletes from competing against Israelis since 1979, punishing those who do not comply.
The unofficial ban has not just impacted judo. In 2017, Alireza Karimi-Machiani, Iran’s contender at the U23 World Senior Wrestling Championship in Poland, purposefully lost against his Russian opponent in order to avoid facing an Israeli, goaded by calls of “Alireza, lose” from his coach, a move praised by Iran’s Wrestling Federation following the match.
The United World Wrestling (UWW) Disciplinary Chamber later punished him for throwing the fight, which prompted Rasoul Khadem, president of Iran’s Wrestling Federation, to resign, saying, “If we must continue with the policy of non-competition against the Zionist regime’s athletes, the responsibility cannot fall on the shoulders of the coach and the athlete.”
The policy triggered fears that five Iranian wrestlers would face a backlash should they be pitted against Israeli contenders at the 2019 World Wrestling Championships that took place from 14-22 September in Kazakhstan.
Khadem wrote to the Supreme National Security Council warning that the long-standing policy put Iran’s chances of qualifying for the 2020 Olympics at risk.
‘This is something that goes beyond depriving our national champions in this field who are, and have been, the standard-bearers of this country’s honour and pride at major Olympics and international arenas. It puts the whole of Iranian wrestling in danger,’ he wrote.
After discussion with the UWW president, they concluded that suspension from competing in the Olympics might not only extend to Iran’s Wrestling Federation but all Iranian sports.
Ayatollah Khamenei has been unwilling to withdraw the policy, advising critics not to “yield to threats”.
However, Iran has not been above accommodating outside pressure. Having banned women from attending football matches at stadiums since 1981 with occasional concessions that have served to placate FIFA, the international football federation, it recently rolled back this draconian law.
On 10 October, up to 4,000 tickets were earmarked for women to enter Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to watch the national team play Cambodia. The authorities agreed to sell a capped number of tickets to women for international matches, but this has only followed years of campaigning, women sneaking into matches dressed as men, and as a result, a number of arbitrary prison sentences.
The case of the ‘blue girl’ represented a turning point for women’s fight to attend football matches. On 2 September, Sahar Khodayari dressed in the colours of her favourite team, Esteghlal, and set herself on fire in front of a Tehran Revolutionary Court, to protest a possible prison sentence of six months for trying to enter a stadium to watch a football match. She died several days later from her injuries.
The outcry and international attention compelled FIFA to increase pressure on Iran to ensure women are able to attend football matches in line with FIFA guidelines. The association sent a special delegation to Tehran on 19 September to ensure there were no obstacles to women freely entering stadiums and being able to attend the Iran-Cambodia match on 10 October.
Despite the progress made, human rights groups caution against declaring it the end-game, saying the seating cap is discriminatory.
“Iran’s ban on half the population attending football matches has led to women and girls risking arrest, jail and even their lives to challenge it,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.
“Any concessions by FIFA to limit the number of women who can attend stadiums only empowers Iran’s hardliners who have previously pre-selected women to attend while keeping the discriminatory restrictions in place.”
Maryam Qashqaei Shojaei, a football fan and long-time campaigner for lifting the ban on women in stadiums, told Fanack that it was important to note that the concession by the authorities has only been made for one match so far and only applies to international games. “We don’t have another national match for another six months,” she said.
“The loudest cries for this stadium ban were regarding league matches. A lot of league matches are happening around the country and women aren’t allowed to watch them,” she said, adding that FIFA’s efforts were insufficient and that the organization has only acted in response to pressure from activists. “Now we want FIFA to apply another deadline for league teams, not only the national team.”
Nevertheless, the involvement of international as well as other bodies may have an impact on Iran’s position on sports and how it interacts with the respective charters, as Shojaei said there is a point where the Ministry of Sport and Youth must do something if all of the global sporting associations come down hard on the country.
However, Iran’s Deputy Sports Minister Mohammad Reza Davarzani has been lurking in the background of many of the decisions causing controversy, including ordering Mollaei to withdraw. He also banned for life two footballers who played with a Greek club and appeared in a match against an Israeli team. He has stated that he does not believe allowing women to attend Iranian league matches is appropriate.
The regime’s interference in sports, whether it is to limit women’s participation in sporting events or to prevent competition against Israeli contenders, has had a notable impact on individuals, affecting their freedom, their life and, for athletes, the chance to fulfil their potential.
On the Olympic stage, Iran’s current position could put its chances of participation in jeopardy. However, it might take a more concerted effort from international sporting bodies before any lasting change in this particular arena is seen.