By Payam Younesipour
May 13, 2020
An “urgent” bill prohibiting competition between Iranian and Israeli athletes has been given the green light by members of the Iranian parliament, according to Fars News Agency’s parliamentary service.
Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian majles, confirmed that 192 MPs had been present at the vote earlier today and that the urgency of the bill was approved by a significant majority. He has now asked the parliamentary security committee to approve the bill as soon as possible, meaning it will be on the agenda during the open session early next week.
Fars News Agency claims that after the “urgent” nature of the bill was agreed, some MPs chanted the slogan “Death to Israel.”
The change in legislation could undermine the entire landscape of Iranian sport. In practice, Iranian athletes have not competed against Israeli athletes since the first few years after the Islamic Revolution, but this unofficial ban was never enshrined in Iranian law. For this reason, Iranian sports federations have prevented Iranian national teams from competing against Israelis through an array of excuses, such as “athlete injury” or “expedient defeat.”
If the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or international sports federations decide this constitutes political interference in sports, and/or racial and ethnic discrimination, the whole of Iranian sport could be exposed to the danger of suspension from international tournaments.
Article 3 of the IOC’s statute stipulates: “Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of ethnic origin, gender, language, religion, politics or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.”
The same paragraph is reproduced in Article 4, Paragraph A of the World Football Federation’s own charter.
The IOC also states in part of its constitution, which has also been republished in the statutes of world federations, that it and all its affiliated members are committed to respecting and protecting internationally recognized human rights.
United World Wrestling also added four clauses to its statute in September 2018, which were sent to wrestling federations around the world. The amended statute includes the provisions: “Preserving human dignity is a key requirement of the Olympics”, “Refrain from any discrimination among participants based on ethnic origin, ethnicity, religion, philosophical and political beliefs, family situation, etc”, and “No harmful mental or physical action against the individuality of the participants is accepted.”
Iran’s decades-long evasion of actions that would risk suspension in the sporting world began in the early 1980s, with a personal decision by then-foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati. In 1983, at the World Freestyle Wrestling Championships in Soviet Kiev, Bijan Seifkhani, a 74-kilogram Gilani wrestler, fought against Israeli wrestler Robinson Konashvili and won seven-four.
Velayati ordered the entire Iranian wrestling team to return home. News reached the team that night and the coaches went into each of the contestants’ rooms, waking them up and telling them to pack their bags for Tehran. On their return, all of the technical staff and Bijan Seifkhani himself were reprimanded by officials.
Iran has never accepted the relevant clauses of the IOC or the world federations as law, leading to two long-running and significant breaches. The first is an unofficial ban on competition between Iranian and Israeli athletes. The second is an unofficial ban on women entering sport stadiums in the country.
The statute of the world football federation is also significant. FIFA stipulates that the constitution of each country’s domestic football federation must be taken from the FIFA Constitution and written in accordance with the governing laws of the host country. But it has one caveat: that the current laws of the country should not be in conflict with the principles of FIFA.
Had the Iranian parliament actually passed a law prohibiting women from entering stadiums, under its current rules, FIFA could have suspended the Iranian Football Federation’s membership.
Now, a law is on the cusp of being passed in the Iranian parliament that puts the integrity of Iranian sports in jeopardy, and risks its suspension from major global contests.
Mojtaba Zolnuri, chair of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, has said of the bill: “The MPs of the 10th Parliament, who strive to serve the country, can add a golden wreath to their services by approving this bill.”
At home perhaps, but not abroad. This “golden wreath” would increase the likelihood of further international pressure on sports federations and the IOC to clamp down on unacceptable restrictions in Iranian sports.
In 2019, the Iranian Judo Federation was suspended because it was proven that politicians had intervened in sport by barring former Olympian Saeed Molaei from competing with an Israeli judoka. In the same year, a wave of Iranian athletes emigrated due to pressure to not compete with Israeli rivals, or to wear hijab.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, the international Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) had been set to ask Molaei, who has since taken refuge in Germany, to testify against Iran’s anti-Israel stance.