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Keep Out of Sports Diplomacy, Warns IRGC Commander

A graphic by Iranian cartoonist Shahrokh Heidari, "You gotta lose the match".

Top Iranian military commanders have warned coaches and athletes to keep out of the ring of diplomacy after a handful of Iranian sportsmen criticized the Islamic Republic’s unwritten rule of forbidding athletes from competing against Israelis in international sports competitions.

“It is a non-negotiable principle that Iranian athletes must refrain from competition with Israelis,” said commander of the Baseej Resistance Force General Gholam Hossein Ghebparvar said on March 19 in an interview with Mehr news agency, adding that the destruction of Israel is the central ideal of the Islamic Republic.

It is an open secret in the sports world that Iranian athletes regularly feign injury and throw matches in order to avoid facing Israeli opponents in international competitions as they are forbidden to do so. But some athletes and coaches have begun speaking out against this policy.

Meanwhile, General Gheybparvar has once again cautioned officials in charge of Iranian national teams to steer clear of “sports diplomacy.”

The debate was reignited last month when the United World Wrestling Disciplinary Chamber banned young Iranian wrestler Alireza Karimi Mashiani for six months for throwing a match to avoid an Israeli opponent in November 2017. His coach, Hamidreza Jamshidi, who had forced Karimi to throw a match, was banned for two years.

Following the decision, the president of Iran’s Wrestling Federation, Rasoul Khadem, criticized the Islamic Republic's authorities for prohibiting competition against Israelis.

Former head of Iran's wrestling federation and freestyle wrestling coach Rasoul Khadem, who resigned in protest against ban on competition with Israeli athletes.
Former head of Iran's wrestling federation and freestyle wrestling coach Rasoul Khadem, who resigned in protest against ban on competition with Israeli athletes.

"If we must continue with the policy of non-competition against the Zionist regime's athletes, the responsibility cannot fall solely on the shoulders of the coach and the athletes," Khadem told state-run radio.

Khadem, an Olympic gold medalist, called for a "fundamental solution" to the problem, saying that "forcing an athlete to accept defeat or run around all night looking for a doctor's note [to present it as an excuse for skipping a match against Israeli athletes] is not right."

General Gheybparvar had earlier characterized Khadem’s resignation as a move toward “testing the waters for establishing relations with Israel,” and warned, “This is not something that one can test and see if the result is positive, then take further steps. No further steps will be taken, because we will break their legs when they make the very first move [toward Israel].”

Khadem resigned his post as president of the Iranian Wrestling Federation on February 28 after calling on Iranian state officials to declare a clear policy about competing with Israeli athletes, and to stand firm by that policy. Khadem said upon his resignation “I cannot lie to the wrestling community for the sake of keeping my position.”

In a recent statement, Khadem noted, “Iranian political and military officials either do not understand the matter or pretend not to get the point.”

Furthermore, he said that if Iranian politicians really believe what they say about “the Zionist regime,” they should take up arms and not hide behind athletes.

Several other wrestling officials have also resigned en masse in support of Khadem’s move.

Tayebeh Siavashi, a member of the Iranian Parliament, described the mass resignation as “shocking.”

“Although the policy’s objective is not to recognize Israel, Iranian athletes say the world does not understand this behavior because this is an undeclared policy which is not even popular inside Iran,” Ms. Siavashi tweeted.

“Many wrestlers have said they could have won a medal [if they were allowed to compete with their Israeli peers],” she wrote in another tweet.

President Hassan Rouhani’s administration and the Islamic Republic’s Supreme National Security Council have remained silent about Khadem’s resignation and his protest to the unwritten law that prevents Iranian athletes from competing with their Israeli counterparts.

However, the comments made by General Gheybparvar have added credibility to the long-standing speculation that the IRGC exerts substantial influence over the Iranian sporting world