It’s not just Iranian athletes who were relieved to hear that a proposed formal ban on them competing against Israelis was recently taken off the table. Members of Iran’s parliament deleted a clause referring specifically to sport from its “motion for confrontation against the actions of the Zionist regime, which endanger peace and security” that had been drafted by its committee for national security and foreign affairs.
“That would have been suicide for Iranian sport,” said Mehdi Jafari Gorzini, a politician based in the western German city of Mainz. He fled to Germany in 1980 due to the political situation in his native Iran.
Even though the clause was deleted, there is still support for the idea of formally banning Iranian athletes from competing against their Israeli counterparts.
Ebrahim Azizi, a member of the parliamentary committee that drafted the clause, has defended all aspects of the bill. In the Islamic Republic, ideological principles are more important than sporting events, Azizi said. Therefore, even being banned from all international competition would have been “no problem,” he added.
Athletes emphasize Iranian identity
It hasn’t come to that this time, but despite the lack of a formal law, it’s been clear for years that there is an unwritten rule that prohibits Iranian athletes from competing against Israelis. When Iranian athletes have found themselves in a position in which they stood to come up against an Israeli opponent, they have done things like feign an injury or deliberately lost earlier in a competition to avoid doing so.
The most recent example of this came in September 2019, when world-class judoka Saeid Mollaei deliberately lost to avoid facing an Israeli at the World Championships in Tokyo. After fleeing to Germany, a few weeks later, he confirmed as much in an interview with DW.
“I had to get permission for every fight. The orders came from Iran, went to the head coach of the team and I had to follow those orders,” he said. “Not just me, but the whole world knows what the consequences would have been had I refused. So I obeyed the law so that no problems would arise for me and my family.”
Another prominent victim of this policy is Rasul Kahdem. The former president of the Iranian Wrestling Federation and ex-coach of Iran’s freestyle wrestling team resigned in 2018 over Tehran’s anti-Israeli stance. Several athletes have fled the country for the same reason.
“The athletes are saying: ‘We don’t want that anymore and we and don’t want to support the autocratic mullah regime,'” said German-Iranian journalist Farid Ashrafian, who works for DW’s Persian service. “But they always emphasize their Iranian identity, which has nothing to do with the Islamic Republic.”
Iranian athletes applying pressure
World-class canoeist Saeid Fazloula, is another athlete who fled his homeland in order to avoid being confronted with such unpleasant situations in the future. Having applied for asylum in Germany in 2015, he’s now a member of his new country’s national canoeing team.
When he heard about the proposed legislation to formally ban Iranians from competing against Israelis he took to Instagram to call on Germany to intervene: “So that international pressure can be exerted.”
Fazloula thinks he may know the reason that the parliament backtracked on the proposed legislation.
“Many Iranian athletes applied internal pressure to get this passage deleted,” Fazloula told DW.
It seems the rulers who were looking to pass the legislation had not bargained for so much resistance to their plan.
Khameni’s tweet sparks international criticism
Meanwhile, Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently drew sharp international criticism over a Twitter post in which he wrote of “eliminating Israel.”
However, Fazloula interprets the tweet as a positive sign regarding Iranian sports.
“My read of Khamenei’s tweet: The religious leader may have exerted influence on the parliamentarians because Khamenei wants the state of Israel eliminated, but not the people or the Jews,” the 27-year-old said.
“This could be an unofficial green light indicating that a surprising complete reversal could soon take place, and competition against Israel could soon be possible,” he added.
Still, there is no denying that Khamenei wrote of “eliminating Israel.”
“As always, the Iranian regime is unpredictable. Those in power don’t make decisions rationally, but based on temporarily justified ideologies instead,” said Mainz-based politician Mehdi Jafari Gorzini.