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Iranian Judo Federation Banned from International Matches for Four Years

April 30, 2021
Payam Younesipour
4 min read
The disciplinary committee of the World Judo Federation announced Thursday that the Islamic Republic of Iran Judo Federation (IRIJF) has been suspended for four years
The disciplinary committee of the World Judo Federation announced Thursday that the Islamic Republic of Iran Judo Federation (IRIJF) has been suspended for four years
Arash Miresmaeili, president of the Iranian Judo Federation, had claimed a "legal victory" for Iran after the Court of Arbitration for Sport referred the matter back to the World Federation in March
Arash Miresmaeili, president of the Iranian Judo Federation, had claimed a "legal victory" for Iran after the Court of Arbitration for Sport referred the matter back to the World Federation in March

The disciplinary committee of the World Judo Federation announced Thursday that the Islamic Republic of Iran Judo Federation (IRIJF) has been suspended for four years.

According to the ruling, Iran committed a “serious breach” of the rules by forcing Olympian judoka Saeid Mollaei to deliberately lose a round in the 2019 World Championships so he would not have to compete against an Israeli player.

“In addition,” the ruling read, “this matter has shown the combined involvement of the IRI NOC [National Olympic Committee] and the Ministry of Sports, as well as the IRIJF, which clearly reveals an institutionalised scheme” – referring to the systemic practice in Iran of barring its athletes from competing with Israelis in all sports and disciplines.

Iran was temporarily suspended immediately after the incident on September 18, 2019. As such the Federation backdated the start date of the withdrawal to then, meaning the country cannot take part in international judo competitions until September 2023.

It added: “The Disciplinary Commission considers that this sanction... is proportionate to the extremely severe offenses committed by IRIJF.”

The Final Result of an Charged Court Hearing

Last year the Iranian Judo Federation protested against its suspension and appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

During a dramatic court hearing in Switzerland last September, Mollaei – who has since claimed asylum in Europe – and two other Iranian judokas gave evidence in person, with a police escort for their safety. The IRIJF claimed its decisions had “never” been influenced by politics or ideology. It added that no Iranian judokas had been pressurized not to compete with Israelis.

Iran’s representatives in the courtroom included Arash Miresmaeili, the president of the Iranian Judo Federation, Majid Zareian, the head coach of the national judo team, Nasrollah Sajjadi, who had led the Iranian team at the Tokyo Olympics, Mohammad Reza Davarzani, president of the Volleyball Federation and a representative of the Ministry of Sports and Youth, and Amir Saed, a sports lawyer and jurist.

On March 1, 2021, the CAS publicly published the outcome of the trial on its official website. It determined that Iran had committed “serious violations” of the World Judo Federation’s rules but noted that the indefinite ban that was then imposed had no legal basis. For that reason, it referred the matter back to the Federation’s own disciplinary team for a final decision.  

Twisting the Narrative Before Time

Shortly before the CAS’s decision was published on March 1, Miresmaeili published an official statement claiming a “great legal victory” for Iran. Amir Saed also posted a news item about it on his Instagram page in which he claimed that the suspension of the Judo Federation had been “lifted”.

In fact, what the CAS had asked the World Federation to do was set a more clearly-defined punishment. At the time these statements were published, the Federation was deliberating over not if, but what level of sanctions to Iran would be appropriate.

The Sports News program of IRIB Channel 3 also interviewed Arash Miresmaeili on March 1 and congratulated him on the “victory” before the CAS ruling was published. Fars, Mehr, and ISNA news agencies also covered the “lifting” of the suspension, only to delete their reports from their websites minutes after the full text of CAS’s decision appeared online.

Where Does Iran’s Federation Really Stand?

In February 2021, the condition the World Judo Federation had set for Iran’s reinstatement was that Iran take part in a show competition involving both Iranian and Israeli judokas, to show good faith. Unsurprisingly, this did not happen.

In fact, Arash Miresmaeili himself had previously called the IRIJF’s suspension over not fighting Israeli athletes "a divine blessing" and "the pride of Iranian sports". The comments were made in a private meeting with the Friday Imam of Hamedan, and later leaked in an audio file.

The Iranian Judo Federation is known for being one the most politicized sports federations in Iran. Miresmaeili also infamously avoided fighting his own would-be Israeli opponent in the 2004 Athens Olympics. On his return to Iran, he received a hero’s welcome from then-Speaker of Parliament Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel and a group of MPs.

The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, then sang his praises at a subsequent meeting of athletes and said: "There were many plots to condemn this act, but this young Iranian believer was able to inactivate them and take action." Then-president Mohammad Khatami also paid him a cash prize then equivalent to US$125,000.

In 2012, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, then the Mayor of Tehran, named a sports center on Resalat Highway after Miresmaeili and donated it to the IRIJF. And subsequently just last year, Miresmaeili appointed Hassan Kordmihan, one of the perpetrators of the 2016 attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, as the head of the Judo Federation's Cultural Committee.

Now facing the prospect of missing two consecutive Olympic Games, the IRIJF has 21 days to appeal the disciplinary panel’s verdict.

Related coverage:

Iran Punished for Forcing Judokas to Avoid Israeli Athletes

Exiled Iranian Athletes Testify Against Iran at International Sports Court

Iranian Judo Federation Suspended — And Now all Iranian Sports are at Risk

Banned Iranian Athlete Finally Travels to Israel

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