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Iran Wrestlers Try to Pin Down Detente

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They came. They saw. They pinned.

In an event as important to diplomacy as to sports, Iran’s premier wrestlers and their noisy, adoring fans overwhelmed the 1998 World Cup championship this weekend, silencing the Japanese, overpowering the Germans, humbling the Russians and stunning the Cubans.

And that was off the mat. The Iranian wrestlers didn’t do badly in the competition either.

The boisterous visit, a sequel to the groundbreaking trip by U.S. wrestlers to Tehran in February, was the latest in a series of cultural and academic exchanges propelling the United States and the Islamic Republic toward rapprochement after two decades of hostility.

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Iran’s participation in the wrestling championship captured the spirit of the pingpong diplomacy that heralded a thaw in the 1970s between the U.S. and China.

“We want this to be the beginning of peace on Earth and goodwill toward men,” Oklahoma State University President James Halligan said at the opening ceremony as Iranian fans whistled, shouted, clapped and waved a sea of red-green-and-white national flags.

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The Iranians’ appearance had gotten off to a rocky start when, in stark contrast to the VIP treatment the U.S. wrestlers received in Tehran, the Iranian team was delayed for two hours upon arrival in Chicago last week so that its members could be fingerprinted and photographed by U.S. officials.

“We did not deserve such treatment,” said Coach Amir Khaden. “We were not treated like the other teams. We do not understand why we were treated like criminals.”

“We were invited to this tournament, and we are your guests,” said 119-pound wrestler Mohammed Talaei. “It wasn’t nice, this behavior. . . . The team was upset.”

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, asked this weekend: “How could the Iranian nation extend a hand of friendship toward an enemy who continues to harbor a malicious and bitter heart?”

The Iranian Foreign Ministry filed an official complaint Sunday. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mahmoud Mohammadi, declared: “The behavior of the U.S. immigration office indicated a lack of a shift in the U.S. policy toward Iran.”

Larry Sciaccetano, president of the U.S. wrestling federation, apologized, attributing the snafu to a last-minute change in the Iranian team’s travel arrangements.

That episode aside, the atmospherics of U.S.-Iranian relations have changed significantly since the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami was installed in Tehran eight months ago. It was reflected in a congressional message to the Iranian team that was read to the crowd before the U.S.-Iranian wrestling match.

The leather-bound “Proclamation Congratulating the Iranian Wrestling Team,” sponsored by Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), the only member of Congress who speaks Persian, expressed “distinct pleasure in honoring” the Iranians.

After the reading, Mohammed Taleghani, the head of the Iranian wrestling federation, who hours earlier had insisted that there was nothing political about Iran’s participation in the event, stood in the middle of the arena waving the proclamation to the crowd.

The Iranian fans cheered wildly.

The thaw in congressional sentiment toward Iran extends well beyond Ney, who worked as a teacher in Iran until the 1979 revolution and who for years backed the opposition to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who a little more than two years ago pushed for a $20-million CIA allocation to topple the Iranian regime, held an informal meeting in Switzerland in January with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. Gingrich was so impressed, according to congressional sources, that he told the White House that he thought the United States could “do business” with Iran’s new government.

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In recent years, Congress has imposed economic sanctions on foreign companies that do substantial business with Iran and has cut off foreign aid to countries that provide Iran with weapons technology.

Last week, by contrast, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, the ranking Democrat on the House International Affairs Committee, appealed to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for an easing of visa restrictions on Iranians “to help foster people-to-people exchanges [that] would help move us closer to the authoritative government-to-government dialogue we seek.”

Ney, who co-signed the letter, said in an interview: “Many members of Congress are willing to let this process evolve. I’m pretty pleased with the progress so far. As long as the pattern continues, I think things will get to the point that the two countries can directly discuss issues that are of mutual importance.”

President Clinton is also “intrigued” with the possibility of resuming relations with Iran, according to aides, who say he views Iran as his China.

The U.S.-Iranian wrestling exchange’s similarities to the pingpong diplomacy of a quarter of a century ago seem almost scripted.

Just as Beijing initiated the visit by an American pingpong team to break the political ice after 20 years of hostility and a U.S. economic embargo, Tehran invited the U.S. wrestling team to launch a wave of cultural exchanges after 19 years of hostility and U.S. economic sanctions. Pingpong is the favorite sport in China; wrestling is Iran’s national game.

In the 1970s, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai heralded pingpong diplomacy as “opening a new page in relations between the Chinese and American people.” Iran’s Khatami called in January for new people-to-people exchanges to “break down the wall of mistrust.”

More broadly, the sports exchanges in China and Iran marked turning points in their revolutions. Pingpong diplomacy came in the later stages of China’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution, which convulsed the country from 1966 to 1976. Khatami’s overture follows his upset election as a reformist who has pledged to respect the rule of law, allow the formation of political parties and generally increase individual freedoms.

Tehran’s initiative has sparked an intense response in the United States. The World Affairs Council in Orange County achieved a diplomatic first Thursday at a conference on U.S.-Iranian relations by hosting Iran’s U.N. ambassador, Hadi Nejad Hosseinian. The State Department, which allowed the visit, ordinarily requires him to remain within 25 miles of New York City.

As for the weekend wrestling match, the U.S. team upset the Iranians and then the Russians defeated the Americans, leaving Iran in third place. But nobody here seemed to care, least of all the Iranians.

At the end of the competition, Taleghani took the microphone on the arena floor, thanked the crowd and said he looked forward to the day when they could all attend a wrestling match in Iran.

Both Iranians and Americans cheered wildly.


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