Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi, members of the Iranian National Football Team, competed against the Israeli team Maccabi, with Michalis Grigoriou (C), head coach of the Greek football team Panionios of Athens. (Supplied)

February 05, 2020

IranWire has gained access to information that shows the Iranian sports ministry and the National Olympic Committee have arrived at new rules for members of the country’s national teams regarding competition against Israeli athletes. For the moment, the rules do not apply to football and volleyball.

The transcript of a conversation between sports minister Masoud Soltanifar and the presidents of a number of Iranian sports federations, which was sent to IranWire, shows that the Ministry of Sport and Youth and the Olympic Committee have ordered all federations that plan to dispatch individual athletes or teams to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to carefully study the standing of Israeli athletes in their fields.

“We will not dispatch to Tokyo any athlete who is going to have an Israeli competitor in his weight and his group,” Soltanifar told presidents of the federations, “even if he is Hasan Yazdani,” referring to an Olympic and World Champion freestyle wrestler.

But why did Soltanifar mention Hasan Yazdani in particular?

Hasan Yazdani, 25, is undoubtedly the best chance for Iran at the Tokyo Olympics. He won a gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, two gold medals at the World Championships in 2017 and 2019, one World Cup gold medal in 2015 and one gold at the 2014 World Junior Championship. At this moment, he has no equal in the world.

But now the great minds of Iranian sports have decided that if there is going to be an Israeli competing in the 74kg weight group for wrestling at Tokyo they will not send Iran’s best wrestler to the Olympics.

Consequences of a Commitment

The decision goes back to a commitment that two high-level Iranian officials gave the highest sports official in the world in Lausanne — a commitment to separate sports and politics. On January 14, 2020, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), officially announced that that, during a trip to Switzerland, Iranian sports minister Masoud Soltanifar and Reza Salehi Amiri, president of Iran’s National Olympic Committee, had made a commitment that Iran would respect the Olympic Charter. Bach said that he would not suspend Iranian sports because Iran had signed a letter, promising that they would put an end to the ban on competing against Israeli athletes.

Bach told reporters he praises Iran’s new policy of political neutrality in sports, but that further observation and review would be required to ensure that this neutrality is kept intact. On January 16, the IOC’s president reiterated that he was keeping a close eye on Iranian sports.

The visit to Switzerland by the Iranian sports minister and the president of the National Olympic Committee was barely covered in Iranian domestic media — clearly because coverage about their commitment to end the ban on competing against Israeli athletes was a controversial and delicate matter.

At the same time, it was almost impossible to keep such a thing secret. In March 2018, Rasoul Khadem, former president of Iran’s Wrestling Federation, wrote to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and warned it that both the World Wrestling Union and the International Olympic Committee were looking into Iranian athletes’ refusal to compete against Israeli athletes. He was the only high-level Iranian sports official to dare to stand up against the policy and directly called on both the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the Supreme National Security Council to change this unwritten law. For this, he was forced to resign.

In September of the same year, the Supreme Leader dashed any hopes that the policy would be reversed. “The Islamic Republic of Iran will never participate in sports competitions with the representatives of the usurping regime [Israel],” he told Iranian athletes who had won medals at the 18th Asian Games in Jakarta on September 24, 2018. He then praised Alireza Karimi, the Iranian freestyle wrestler who in 2017 deliberately lost a match so that he would not have to face an Israeli opponent. Khamenei called his action an example of “true heroism.”

A Perfect Predicament

Now, on one hand, there is the Supreme Leader’s edict and, on the other, top Iranian sports officials’ commitment — a perfect Catch-22. But the “solution” to this predicament was found even before Soltanifar and Salehi Amiri traveled to Austria, and that was that no athlete should be sent to the Olympics if he or she might have to compete against an Israeli athlete.

Officials have come up with this solution before. In September 2019, they withdrew their decision to send Iranian chess players to the World Rapid & Blitz Chess Championship competitions in Moscow, scheduled to start in December 2019, because four Israeli chess players would be competing there too. [Persian link].

Now IranWire has learned that immediately after meeting Thomas Bach, in a meeting with presidents of Iranian sports federation on January 28, sports minister Soltanifar made them understand, indirectly, that no athlete or national team should be sent to the Olympics if their participation was going to cause “trouble.”

In later private meetings with the heads of the federations, he clearly told them that “under no conditions” would athletes or teams be sent to Tokyo if they might have to compete against Israelis.

In his meeting with Iranian sports officials, Thomas Bach reiterated that the IOC would no longer tolerate violations of the Olympic Charter. He said that if an Iranian athlete refuses to compete against an Israeli, all Iranian athletes will be immediately banned from continuing in Olympics competitions. He further reiterated that if it is proven that Iranian politics continued to meddle in sports “all Iranian sports” will be suspended.

Helping Israelis to Win

The solution Iranian sports authorities have come up with is essentially helping Israelis to win.

In 2016, the Israeli Wrestling Federation decided that, up until the 2024 Olympics, Israel would send at least one wrestler in each weight category of freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling to the Olympics — a deliberate tactic to increase the chance that an Iranian wrestler would have to face an Israeli and thus prove that the Iranian regime bans its athletes from competing against Israelis.

This plan was conceived by Gocha Tsitsiashvili, who was the first Israeli wrestler to win medals for his country at international competitions and who is now the president of Israel’s Wrestling Federation.

Iranians first heard of wrestling champion Gocha Tsitsiashvili in 1998 when the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) proudly announced that the Iranian Greco-Roman wrestler Behrouz Jamshidi had refused to fight his Israeli opponent to “defend the oppressed people of Palestine.” Had Jamshidi fought Tsitsiashvili he was almost certain to win a bronze medal, but he forfeited his chance and did not go to the mat.

Today Israel is seriously endeavoring to strengthen and build its wrestling teams and it has recruited non-Israeli athletes for this purpose, including Vladislav Grisko and Vadim Goncharenko, both from Ukraine, Mark Popov, born in the Republic of Georgia, and Robert Avanesyan, an Armenian-born Jewish athlete.

This all-out effort by Israel is now endangering the whole of Iranian sports. Only one person can remove this danger: the Supreme Leader. But Ayatollah Khamenei has explicitly announced that he has no intention of retreating. As a result, it has fallen on Iranian sports officials to do their best by keeping athletes at home that are likely to face Israelis at the Olympics.

The Olympics, of course, is the greatest sports event in the world and the ultimate ambition of any athlete, anywhere. But now, in effect, Iran has boycotted the Olympics.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.