February 3, 2016
Decades before the United States and Iran agreed on the historic nuclear deal, international sports federations were working together to break down diplomatic barriers and prejudices between the two countries. Since 1998, wrestling rings and volleyball courts in Tehran and California—not Washington conference rooms—have been main arenas of intercultural diplomacy between the United States and Iran.

Sports diplomacy offers a “perfect marriage” for positive and sustainable diplomatic engagement between otherwise rival states, said Greg Sullivan, Senior Adviser for Public Diplomacy in the US State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs.

“Sports diplomacy helped remove the thirty-six-year debris of bad rhetoric and dehumanizing behavior [between the United States and Iran],” he said. “It played a critical role in nurturing an environment for new dialogue to be heard and received.”

Sullivan spoke at the Atlantic Council on February 2 at an event hosted by the Council’s Future of Iran Initiative. Barbara Slavin, Acting Director of the Initiative, moderated the panel that also included Bahman Baktiari, Executive Director for International Foundation for Civil Society; Christina Kelley, Team Leader for the US Men’s Greco-Roman wrestling team; and James Ravannack, President of USA Wrestling.

Sullivan commended Baktiari, Kelly, and Ravannack for their efforts at establishing sports diplomacy, and noted that these measures ultimately set the stage for “the restoration of US-Iran public diplomacy, language, and academic exchange programs to take place” over the past few years.

While wrestling may not be as popular in the United States, it is considered a national sport in Iran.

Reflecting on his first wrestling competition trip to Tehran with Kelly and Ravannack, Baktiari said that the “visit was viewed as being more than just wrestling” by the US and Iranian athletes as well as local media. Wrestling competitions have brought the two countries closer.

“The US wrestling team has visited Iran fourteen times since 1998...and this process of repeated visits back and forth has brought forth huge interactions, and has helped cultural exchange become institutionalized between the United States and Iran,” Baktiari said.

Sports diplomacy has also enabled positive engagement between rival powers outside of direct cultural exchange. In 2013, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) dropped wrestling from the 2020 Summer Games due to scheduling conflicts, cost issues, and decreased popularity. Through unified IOC testimony and strategic marketing—including an internationally-sponsored wrestling competition staged at Grand Central Station in New York—American, Iranian, and Russian wrestling federations banded together in an otherwise unheard-of trinity to re-promote wrestling to an Olympic-level sport for the 2020 Olympic Games.

The State Department has used the positive integration borne out of wrestling’s US-Iran exchange to host Iranian and American volleyball tournaments in California. With wrestling’s World Championships held just last year in Los Angeles and the upcoming Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, sports diplomacy continues to drive the growing bond between the two countries.

Even though several US lawmakers are opposed to the nuclear deal struck between the P5+1 countries—the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, and Germany—and Iran in July of 2015, cultural exchanges and public diplomacy will certainly grow as Washington and Tehran enter into a new period of engagement.

Sports diplomacy has served as a driving factor in the US-Iran détente, said Sullivan. He added: “Over time, tensions have eroded.”

Mitch Hulse is an intern at the Atlantic Council.