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February 25, 2013

Iran and the U.S. meet on the wrestling mat in Tehran

In an atmosphere of heavy sanctions and talk of war, wrestlers from around the world have come to Tehran to participate in the annual Wrestling World Cup. The event, which changes venues every year, has brought together wresting teams from countries not typically known for close ties, such as the U.S., Cuba, Russia, and Iran.

The advent of such kinds of sport exchanges between Iran and the U.S. actually hearkens back to the era of former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Khatami sought to foster such exchanges based on his advocacy of “people to people contact between the two nations to break the ice.” Perhaps initially a genuine effort to mimic the “ping-pong” diplomacy between the United and China that paved the way for President Nixon to visit Beijing, this initiative took off with the U.S. wrestling team making a landmark trip to Tehran in 1998. Indeed, this recent trip to the Wrestling World Cup by Team USA marked its tenth visit to Iran in the past decade. Since the late 1990s, various athletes from a variety of different sports have travelled between the two countries. A further sports exchange program between Iran and the US launched in 2007 has seen the U.S. send more than 30 athletes to Iran and more than 75 Iranian athletes and coaches visit the United States.
The past few weeks have also seen a “wrestling alliance” form in an effort to stop the recent International Olympic Committee recommendation to drop wrestling as an Olympic sport. This has led to the unlikely scenario of the U.S. and Iran uniting against a common adversary, all in a time when unilateral American sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program are inflicting an increasingly devastating humanitarian toll on the livelihoods of ordinary Iranians. With the arrival of the U.S. wrestling team in Tehran for this latest wrestling event, a unique opportunity was created for both countries to view each other in a different light, one signified by friendly sportsmanship and camaraderie.
While it is unlikely that the sports détente between the U.S. and Iran will have broader repercussions in mending the political differences between the two countries, it undoubtedly has the effect of fostering relationships and contacts between the two otherwise adversarial countries. As Gary Abbott, the director of communication for USA Wrestling has said, “I have very good friends who are journalists in Iran, the sport breaks down barriers.”
While Iran came out on top at this Wrestling World Cup, an arguably an equally significant triumph of the tournament for all those involved was that it helped build bridges between Iranians and Americans at a time when almost everything else is pulling them apart. The special relationship between the U.S. and Iran in wrestling has led to the USA Wrestling national team director Mitch Hull to say in Tehran that, “there is no doubt that we are all together in this effort and we consider Iran one of our strongest allies in the sport of wrestling.” It is acts of cooperation such as these could very well act as stepping stones for an eventual relationship between the two current adversarial nations based on peaceful co-existence.

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