(Reuters) - Women weightlifters from Iran will be allowed to compete internationally for the first time, the president of the country's weightlifting federation said on Thursday.
In a sign of changing attitudes, Saudi Arabia also confirmed the setting up of a women's program, opening the way to the country also fielding a national women's team six years after the sport's governing body allowed the wearing of the hijab, the traditional Islamic headscarf, in competition.
Iran has one of the world's strongest weightlifting cultures and its men have won seven Olympic gold medals this century.
Ali Moradi, president of the Iranian Weightlifting Federation, said, "We have established the Iran Weightlifting Federation Women's Committee and we have talented female athletes.
"They have high capacity like men athletes, and I hope that, wearing special clothes for Muslim athletes, they will be able to take part in international championships in the near future."
Attila Adamfi, director general of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), said: "This is good news, and it's very significant in Iran, where weightlifting is at the highest level for men, and zero level for women."
Mohammed Alharbi, president of the Saudi Arabia Weightlifting Federation, also confirmed that a new women's program had been set up. Iran and Saudi Arabia are the biggest Islamic nations yet to compete in female weightlifting.
Both countries field men's teams at the IWF World Championships in Anaheim, California, starting next week, and are expected to announce more details there.
Moradi has invited the United States to Iran for the Fajr Cup, an international invitation competition for men, in Ahvaz in March. He has also asked the US to send a women's delegation.
The United States men's team will compete in Ahvaz, and the Americans are also planning to send female lifters, coaches and technical officials.
The American women will train Iranian coaches and technical officials. A head-to-head friendly women's international between Iran and the United States may take place.
"Everything is agreed in principle and we are working on the details," said Phil Andrews, chief executive of USA Weightlifting. "Despite the political differences between our countries we have always enjoyed a very good relationship with the Iranian Weightlifting Federation. Anything we can do to help, we are more than willing to do so."
Those political differences and visa restrictions have made it very difficult for Iranians to travel to the United States. Visas for Iran's all-male team for the World Championships were delayed and only finally approved on Thursday, said Andrews.
Kianoush Rostami, the Olympic champion and world record holder at 85kg, was initially rejected for entry, only receiving a visa on his second application.
Adamfi said, "To have Iran and USA women lifting together would be great, it would show that sport is above politics." Women were barred from weightlifting until 1983.
After a change to the IWF's rules, women began competing at the World Championships from 1987 and at the Olympic Games from 2000.