Iran’s Saeid Mollaei (in blue) participated in the men’s under 81kg category during the 2019 Judo World Championships. (AFP)

By Payam Younesipour

January 20, 2020

The Islamic Republic has formally agreed to lift its long ban on Iranian athletes competing with Israelis, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has announced.

The news, which follows a mid-January meeting between Iranian Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar and Reza Salehi Amiri, President of Iran’s National Olympic Committee (NOC), and Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Lausanne, Switzerland, was barely covered in Iranian domestic media due to its controversial nature, indicating an unsurprising unwillingness on behalf of Iranian officials to actually implement the promise.

Prior to the visit, the NOC’s public relations office characterized the meeting as an “importing working trip,” but the office refrained from saying what was being discussed until January 12. Then, on the third day of the Iranian delegation’s trip to Switzerland, it was reported that officials were meeting with the most powerful sport’s official in the world, the head of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach. According to the Olympic Charter and bylaws, all international and national sports federations must be accredited and authorized by the IOC and all their activities must be in line with the rules and regulations of the IOC and fall under its supervision.

The IOC has the authority to suspend any international or national sports federation, in any field, or all sports played in a particular country, if there are violations of the rules and laws embedded in its charter. Kuwait is one example. In the summer of 2015, the International Football Federation (FIFA) suspended Kuwait’s football federation over the government’s political “interference” in the internal affairs of the country’s football. In October of the same year, for the second time in five years, the IOC suspended Kuwait and all its sports federations for the same reason.

“The Olympic Movement in Kuwait has faced a number of issues to preserve its autonomy, in particular due to recently amended sports legislation in Kuwait,” the IOC announced. “…The KOC [Kuwait Olympic Committee] is not entitled to participate in any activity connected with the Olympic Movement or exercise any right conferred upon it by the Olympic Charter or the IOC. This includes, in particular, any activity organized by associations of NOCs [National Olympic Committees] to which the KOC is affiliated.”

In December 2019, after a deciding vote by the IOC, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned Russia from international sports events for four years. This means that, among other events, the Russian flag will not fly at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Even though Russian athletes can compete in Tokyo going forward, “they cannot use the name of the country in the name of the team,” WADA president-elect Witold Bańka told The Associated Press.

The IOC also flexed its muscles in 2011, when the American Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) began reviewing cases of corruption in FIFA. The IOC announced that if, for any reason, the FBI’s investigations come to a halt, it would independently assign its own investigators to look into FIFA’s finances.

Gentle but Strict

The International Olympic Committee can be compared to an elderly, white-haired, patient and dignified gentleman who speaks softly and very little, giving good advice. Once he gets angry, however, this anger cannot be contained. The IOC is the final arbiter in international sports and its judgment cannot be reversed, which is possibly why it does not issue many verdicts.

In 2000, Mostafa Hashemitaba, the head of the Physical Education Organization, the predecessor to the Iranian Sports Ministry, and the head of the National Olympic Committee became the first and the last Iranians to join the IOC’s board of directors. In his book, The Story of an Ascent, Hashemitaba refers to his meetings with Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee from 1980 to 2001, as the greatest achievement by Iranian sports since the establishment of the Islamic Revolution.

But when the IOC’s president invited the highest sports officials of the Islamic Republic to a meeting, the same gentlemen who had insisted the media pay attention to the organization’s activities, however insignificant, stayed strangely silent about what was a hugely important event by anyone’s estimation.

A Promise in Writing

“Emphasizing the [importance of] observing the Olympic Charter by…[the Iranian] Sports Ministry and the National Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach claimed that implementing the goals and the spirit of sports and the Olympics would create strong and unbreakable ties among the nations and asked that every effort be made to observe the Olympic Charter in Iran,” the website of Iran’s National Olympic Committee reported after Bach’s meeting with Soltanifar and Salehi.

These words provide a clue to the question of why Iranian officials were unwilling to say much about the meeting with the president of the IOC. Two days after the meeting, the Mashregh News website, which is reputedly close to Iranian intelligence agencies, reported: “In a move that shows the fingerprints of Thomas Bach, head of the International Olympic Committee, Raham Saba, the Iranian skier, took a keepsake photo with Israeli and American athletes.” Accompanying the very short report is a picture of Thomas Bach standing next to three Iranian, Israeli and American athletes. The picture was also shared by the IOC’s official Twitter account.

But a day later, the reason for Iran’s unwillingness to report on the meeting became clear. Thomas Bach officially announced that Iran had pledged to end the ban against Israeli athletes. He said that the IOC was not suspending Iran because Iran’s National Olympic Committee had given assurances that it will end its “discriminatory” policy against Israeli athletes. According to the IOC president, Iran’s National Olympic Committee promised to “fully comply with the Olympic Charter” in the future, and set out these promises in a letter to the IOC president. It is not clear when the letter was sent.

The Iranian regime has yet to retract its ban on competing against Israeli athletes but, for now, the letter, which Bach said was signed by both Masoud Soltanifar and Reza Salehi Amiri, has saved Iranian sport from suspension.

Bach told reporters he praises Iran’s new policy of political neutrality in sports, but more observation and review is needed 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.

Although it is not the first time that the International Olympic Committee has looked at political interference in Iranian sports, it has not previously been so direct. Traditionally, the committee has monitored the situation with more discretion and subtlety.

In March 2018, Rasoul Khadem, former president of Iran’s Wrestling Federation, wrote to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and warned them 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 had praise for 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.”

One notable sports figure who recently defected from Iran as a result of the ban on competing against Israelis was Alireza Firouzja, the Iranian chess prodigy who took asylum in France in 2019.

But the best-known case is perhaps Saeid Mollaei, a world judo champion who went to Germany after he was ordered by his coach to intentionally lose in the semifinal at the Tokyo 2019 World Championships so as to avoid a potential match in the finals against the Israeli judoka Sagi Muki. In his interviews with the International Judo Federation (IJF) and Persian-language media outside Iran, he talked about Iranian government officials pressuring him in a bid to prevent Iranian athletes from competing against Israelis. He now fights as a member of the Mongolian judo team.

The intervention of the International Olympic Committee means that Iran can no longer escape competitions against Israeli athletes through subterfuge. The Islamic Republic now has only two options: either compete against Israeli athletes or forget about international professional sports forever. If the IOC suspends Iranian sports, all Iranian teams and athletes will be banned from official international competitions. Even domestic competitions between Iranian sports leagues cannot take place in an official capacity.

Can Iran invent a new lie?

It would appear that the IOC is no longer prepared to fall for the previous trick of feigning injuries. With the commitment that Thomas Bach says he has received, the ball is now squarely in the Supreme Leader’s court. Will Iran compete against Israeli athletes or will all Iranian sports be suspended?

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.