The Iranian government has moved to crush reports that top Iranian gamers will be travelling to Israel to take part in the 12th International E-sports World Championship next year.
Organisers of the event, which is due to take place in Eilat in February 2021, told The Jerusalem Post last week that Iranian teams had confirmed their attendance at the final.
It came a day after a delegation from Iran won their regional qualifying tournament for eFootball PES Series, one of the three official games played at the event, on November 2.
If true, the move would have represented a dramatic about-turn in sporting policy for Iran, which for decades has banned sportspeople of all stripes from competing against Israelis in international contests – let alone attending a sporting showdown on territory it refers to as “occupied Palestine”.
Next year’s esports championship will see 500 gamers from 60 countries around the world battle it out across three game titles, also including the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) DOTA 2 and the popular fighting game Tekken 7, with a grand prize in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Speaking to the Post, Ido Brosh, a member of ISEF’s board and chairman of Israel’s representative organization in the IESF, said he understood Iran would be sending a team.
"On their [Iran’s] side,” he said, “many of the officials in the other member organizations within the IESF are friends of mine, and they're very excited for the opportunity to come."
"E-sports is a tremendous bridge between people. Over the Internet, you have access to a lot of different cultures, and just as we get access to them, they get access to us."
He added that he had secured approval from Israel’s Interior Ministry for the Iranian gamers to come to Israel and provide them with visas.
But after news of the apparent policy breakthrough spread far and wide, official Iranian sports bodies have moved to pour cold water on the claims.
In a statement published by Mehr News on Saturday and endorsed by the Ministry of Sports and Youth, Afshin Molaei, director of the Sport for All Federation, said: “News of Iranian gamers participating in international e-sports competitions held by the Zionist regime in February 2021 in the occupied territories is a complete lie.
"The Zionist regime has no athletes or representatives in these competitions, and the published news is just media mischief aiming at taking advantage of sports to justify the normalization of relations between a number of countries with the Zionist regime.”
Intolerance in Iranian Sports Getting Worse, not Better
These Iranian gamers are far from the first to have been blocked from engaging with their sport at the highest tier because of Iran's unilateral boycott on Israel. For the last four decades, ever since the Islamic Republic of Iran came into being, the backs of Iranian passports have been stamped with a declaration that reads: "The holder of this passport has no right to travel to occupied Palestine."
Earlier this year on May 18, members of the Iranian parliament ratified Article 10 of a new regulation entitled "The Zionist Regime's Hostile Actions Against Peace and Security." The article in question reiterates that Iranian nationals are not permitted to enter "occupied Palestine" and, furthermore, will be subject to imprisonment and forfeiture of their passport for two to five years if they do so.
Moreover, the article bans any deliberate, non-accidental contact between Iranian nationals and nationals of what it calls the "Zionist occupying regime" - that is to say, any Israeli citizen. Prison sentences for either offence could last from six months to two years, accompanied by a fine of two to eight million tomans, and between 31 and 99 lashes.
Initially, Article 11 of the same 14-point memo was due to reiterate the ban on Iranian and Israeli athletes competing against one another overseas. But this was eventually removed due to the current sensitivity of the International Olympic Committee to the issue.