The following article was written by an Iranian citizen journalist on the ground inside the country, who writes under a pseudonym to protect his identity.
In March 2017, United World Wrestling (UWW), the international governing body that oversees amateur wrestling, wrote to Iran’s Wrestling Federation, demanding it answer a question: Does the Iranian government interfere in the affairs of the federation? At the same time, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) asked UWW and the Iranian federation to carefully review and scrutinize the federation’s charter.
This, the latest in a series of episodes that have haunted Iranian sports, could signal a blow to one of Iran's most cherished sports — and one it excels at.
Most Iranians have one memory of this long history of suspensions, and that’s the Fédération Internationale de Football Association’s (FIFA) suspension of the Iranian Football Federation in 2006. FIFA ordered the suspension on November 23, 2006 on grounds that the Iranian government had meddled in the federation’s affairs.
Following the scandal, a committee was formed to draw up a new charter for the football federation, end government interference in its affairs and lift the ban. The committee included Mohsen Safaei Farahani, once a member of parliament and the former president of the football federation; Kiumars Hashemi, the former deputy of the Physical Education Organization and currently the president of Iran’s National Olympic Committee; Mehdi Khabiri, secretary of the federation; and Ali Reghbati, a sports official. The committee was successful in its aims and the ban was lifted on December 19, 2006, less than a month after the suspension.
But the list of Iranian federations that have been suspended or threatened with suspension is long. In fact, even more recent than the fears over wrestling, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) suspended the Iranian Chess Federation on May 12, 2017 over the non-payment of prize money for the Women's World Chess Championship tournament, which was held in Tehran from February 10 to March 5. A few hours after the suspension was announced, the Iranian federation announced that the “problem” had been solved and the suspension had been lifted. This was the only time that a world federation had suspended an Iranian federation for non-political reasons. For the most part, the bans have been linked directly to suspicions that the government has been involved in sports in a way that is inappropriate or illegal.
In 2010, the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) suspended Iran’s federation because of the government’s direct interference in its appointments and its charter. The next year, the Iranian Ministry of Interior transferred authority for the federation to the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports and the federation’s board of directors. Eventually, in late 2012, the international federation lifted the ban.
In 2012, the International Cycling Union (UCI) suspended Iran’s Cycling Federation for illegal appointments. It wrote a letter claiming that Khosro Ghomri had replaced Ali Zangi-Abadi as the federation’s president through direct intervention from the sports ministry. Ministry officials found a simple solution to the problem. They forced Zangi-Abadi to write a letter to the UCI and state that he had resigned of his own free will. However, his acquiescence was not to last long.
In June 2012, José Perurena, president of the International Canoe Federation (ICF), wrote a letter to President Ahmadinejad’s sports minister Mohammad Abbasi, questioning the legality of removing Ahmad Donia Mali as the head of Iran’s Canoe Federation. If it didn't receive a convincing answer, the letter said, “the International Canoe Federation has no option but to temporarily suspend the Iranian Canoe Federation.”
Denying the Denial
Ahmad Donia Mali, who was also a member of ICF’s board of directors, publicly announced that he had informed ICF about the conditions under which he had been dismissed. His announcement encouraged Zangi-Abadi to retract his earlier claim that he had stepped down voluntarily. Unfortunately, that earlier admission had damaged Zangi-Abadi's credibility and he was ignored. In any case, it took a full year for the Iranian federation to come up with a new charter and thereby have the suspension lifted.
Ahmadinejad’s presidency was a low point for sports in Iran, at least in terms of its interactions with world federations. Ahmadinejad's last year in office, when Mohammad Abbasi was serving his second of his two-year stint as Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports, was particularly problematic. Almost all federations were either suspended or were threatened with suspension. For example, in 2012, Obaid al-Anzi, president of the Judo Union of Asia, suspended Iran’s Judo Federation because of the Iranian government’s direct interference in federation affairs. After two months, the International Judo Federation (IJF) agreed to give Iran’s sports ministry a year to fix the problem and ensure the suspension was lifted.
Until 2014, the International Olympic Committee left it completely to international federations to rule on whether national federations should be suspended or not. But as suspicions grew that in some cases international and national federations might collude, the IOC gradually stepped in.
In 2015, the IOC opened an inquiry into Iran’s conduct. After the Rio Olympics, the IOC wrote to Iran’s National Olympic Committee and a number of sports federations, asking them to clarify whether the government or the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports played any role in appointing or dismissing sporting officials. The IOC demanded responses in writing.
The IOC also asked Iran’s track and field, wrestling, basketball, volleyball and shooting federations to send the committee their charters. Prior to this, the IOC had never asked national federations for information and had never corresponded with them. Instead, it had always asked the international federations to clarify anything in doubt.
Perhaps it was these letters from the IOC that led Kiumars Hashemi, President of Iran’s National Olympic Committee, to write to First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri and complain about sports ministry interference in the affairs of sports federations. But even before Hashemi wrote this long letter, Mahmoud Goodarzi, who was sports minister at the time, wrote his own surprising a letter to the IOC. He asked for a detailed report about negotiations between directors of Iran’s National Olympic Committee and members of the IOC. This led the IOC to write to Iran’s committee, asking Kiumars Hashemi to clarify how independent he was from the government.
“There is no Interference!”
The IOC’s insistence on finding out the level of government interference in sports federations continued. On October 9, 2016, the heads of all Iran’s sports federations wrote to the IOC, explicitly denying that the sports ministry had interfered in the affairs of their federations. The assertion was suspect, not least because one of the signatories was Rasoul Khadem, president of Iran’s Wrestling Federation. Just months before, on March 6, 2016, he had written a letter to President Rouhani complaining about ministry interference.
The recent news about the wrestling federation follows on from this. Iranian official media have reported that the sports ministry has applied such pressure on the wrestling federation that it has been unable to prepare a new charter that meets the IOC’s requirements. Therefore, it cannot prove it is independent, and is in danger of being suspended.
So what kind of charters do the International Olympic Committee and international federations demand? It's worth looking back at what Mohsen Safaei Farahani, who served on the committee to forge a new charter for the football federation, said in 2006: “International federations have a master charter that they provide to member countries and each country is obligated to compose its own charter based on this example, but its basic principles cannot be ignored.”
These basics cover the bylaws for holding competitions, following directives issued by the IOC and the international federation and complete independence from the government. In other words, a national federation must function as a non-governmental organization. Each federation must write its own charter and this charter must be approved by the parent international federation. The problem for Iranian federations is that their charters must be approved by the sports ministry and the cabinet, which goes against the independence that the IOC requires. It’s the greatest obstacle a national federation in Iran must overcome before it can submit its chapter to the international federation.
Wrestling and football are the two most popular sports in Iran, and now the Wrestling Federation is in danger of being banned from Olympic competitions. Six months ago, United World Wrestling reviewed the wrestling federation’s charter, leading to the March 2017 letter from the authority.
In the letter, it challenged a number of the provisions set out in the charter, but its biggest objection was that the Iranian federation is controlled by the government. UWW also objected to the fact that the minister of sports approves the four executive members of the federation. It also found it unacceptable that the sports minister appointed the president of the federation.
The government and the sporting federations are short on answers. In fact, more questions seem to arise, chief among them: Why did Rasoul Khadem, who had complained to President Rouhani about political meddling in wrestling, attest to the neutrality of the sports ministry and claim it had nothing to do with the executive affairs of the federations?
Mansour Razavi, Citizen journalist