Wrestling Chief Joins Others Refusing to Play Iran’s Game

For 40 years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has imposed strict rules about a wide variety of matters, from personal appearance to contact with people from adversarial nations. In this winter of discontent, however, more and more Iranians are refusing to abide by regulations that they regard as stifling and self-defeating.

The latest is Rasoul Khadem, an Olympic gold medalist and national hero, who headed the Iranian Wrestling Federation since 2014.

Re-elected to this position just two months ago, he quit this week to protest the government’s requirement that Iranian wrestlers deliberately lose matches to avoid having to compete against Israelis. The most recent such case occurred last November when a wrestler’s coach ordered him to lose a match against a Russian to avoid having to face an Israeli athlete in the next round.

Khaddam objected to the policy and called for a “fundamental solution,” then quit when no such change occurred.

The Islamic Republic of Iran does not recognize the state of Israel and has long supported groups opposed to Israel’s existence. Although Iranians and Israelis occasionally cross paths at international conferences, contact between officials of the two countries is strictly forbidden by Tehran.

Whatever the policy’s merits from a diplomatic perspective, when extended to athletic competition, it is absurd and self-defeating. Wouldn’t Iranian interests be better served if an Iranian athlete played against an Israeli and won? Such competition could also help defuse differences between the two countries, whose animosity and proxy fights are contributing to destabilizing the Middle East.

In terms of ordinary Iranians’ lives, Israel is not a major concern. Wrestling, however, is another matter: it is an ancient Persian pastime and a source of national pride as one of the few sports in which Iran regularly wins medals. Khadem’s resignation is a blow that will reverberate in international sports circles where he is widely respected.

Another Iranian policy that is under increasing assault within Iran is the requirement that all women cover their hair in public.

Once a symbol of opposition to the Shah, whose father forbad the wearing of the hijab to force Iranian society to become secular, enforced veiling was imposed after the 1979 revolution and has irritated women in Iran – and women visiting Iran — for decades.

Increasingly, Iranians have subverted the regulations by wearing tighter and more colorful clothes and allowing their headscarves to slip farther and farther back on their heads. In cars and at night, many women have been forgoing the veil completely.

Late last year, just a day before protests over poor economic conditions began in the eastern city of Mashhad, a young woman in Tehran, Vida Movahed, got up on a utility box on Enghelab (Revolution) Street in central Tehran. She took off her white headscarf, tied it to a stick and waved it before a cheering crowd.

Since then, dozens of other Iranian women – and a few supportive men – have done the same. The government has responded with arrests and tried to further discourage the protests by putting sloped metal sheets on top of the utility boxes. Iranians then figured out how to defeat this by constructing wooden platforms to put on top of the metal sheets. The movement continues and has fed a spirited debate among Iranian officials and within Iranian society.

Hijab is considered a pillar of the Islamic revolution but according to Islam, there should be no compulsion in religion. Furthermore, the Koran does not require veiling, only that women be modest in their comportment.

The slogan “Death to Israel” is also a pillar of the Islamic Republic but one that has served to isolate Iran far more than the Jewish state. Moderation of Iranian rhetoric on Israel would do more to deprive Iran hawks in Washington of ammunition for additional sanctions than perhaps any other step Tehran might take.

Forty years after the revolution, Iranian officials understand better than any outsider how unpopular their system has become. Despite Iran accepting stringent curbs on its nuclear program, the economy has not produced the jobs required to employ well-educated young people. Environmental degradation is an increasing threat to the economy and public health – a fact that makes the recent arrests of respected environmentalists and the death in detention of one of them even more egregious.

Iranians are also protesting the diversion of precious oil revenues to foreign conflicts in support of proxies fighting in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Opinion polls show decreasing popular backing for such efforts, which strengthen the most repressive elements of the Iranian state.

In this unsettled environment, something has to give. Hypocrisy and repression can only go so far for so long.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has acknowledged that “One cannot force one’s lifestyle on the future generations…”

He has promised more personal and political freedom and vowed to reduce the role of the state in the economy. So far, however, his promises remain just that. Without action from above, Iranians are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.

Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. 

Image: Alireza Karimi-Machiani talks to his coach Rasoul Khadem at the Freestyle World Cup (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)