By Payam Younesipour
December 4, 2021
The PR department of the beleaguered Iranian Judo Federation announced this week that ex-national team star Arash Aghaei has come home. Iranian media hailed the news with such headlines as “Return of the refugee star”, with multiple outlets describing Aghaei as a “refugee”.
This was, of course, misleading. In February 2017, Aghaei had spoken to Fars News Agency four months after he moved to Azerbaijan to join the national team there. Then Kabar-e Varzeshi newspaper reported that the young athlete had “taken refuge” in the country, drawing the ire of the Judo Federation. The sports body issued a written rebuke to the paper claiming Aghaei had left the Iranian team’s training camp due to his “busy schedule”.
Arash Aghaei in turn denied the Judo Federation’s version of events. The reason he had gone to Azerbaijan, he said, was the Federation’s “behavior”. He joined a long line of Iranian athletes, including wrestlers Mohammad Reza Azarshakib, Saman Tahmasebi and Sabah Shariati, taekwondo practitioners Milad Beigi, Sina Bahrami and Reza Mehmandoust, and footballer Ali Ghorbani. None of these athletes – unlike many of their contemporaries – were refugees either.
Aghaei’s presence on the Azerbaijani national team is equivalent to that of Saman Ghodus, a Swedish citizen, in the Iranian football team and US citizen Mike Rostampour playing basketball for Iran. Of his return to Iran, the judoka said: “According to an agreement with the honorable president of the federation, from today I will serve our national judo team, and in international competitions, I will fight under the tricolor flag of our beloved country.”
He was pictured in the Federation’s press release alongside Arash Miresmaeili, then-head of the Federation. This statement, too, was spin: Iran received a four-year suspension from the World Judo Federation in September 2019 over political interference in sports, meaning Aghaei won’t be fighting anyone under the tricolor flag until at least September 2023.
What was the Point?
Iranian sports bodies, like the rest of the government, currently hyper-sensitive to defections by young, skilled professional sportspeople. In his first speech as president-elect this summer, Ebrahim Raisi called on his fellow “dear Iranians” to come home. And yesterday, December 1, Kazem Gharibabadi, secretary of the country’s so-called Human Rights Headquarters said Iranians were being put off returning by Western media: “The propaganda by Western countries is totally toxic, political, and deviant. They shouldn’t pay attention to these messages, and whenever they want to travel to Iran, they should do so. They won’t face any problems.”
Many athletes who do choose to leave receive repeated threats as well as entreaties. Iranian football legend Parviz Ghelichkhani has not been able to return to his country for years due to his support for the People’s Fedaiyan Organization; the IRIB has been barred from broadcasting so much as his name. In September 2020, judoka in exile Saeed Molaei testified against Iran at the Court of Arbitration for Sport flanked by Swiss police for his protection after receiving a series of threats from Iranian sporting and security officials.
Other athletes who genuinely did claim asylum in third countries, like taekwondo star Kimia Alizadeh, have repeatedly been called “traitors” on Iranian state TV and radio.
By falsely presenting Arash Aghaei as a “refugee” who had “returned”, the Judo Federation was trying to entice some of these athletes now residing abroad back to the country. With this PR stunt in cahoots with state media alone, alone it seems unlikely to succeed.