Iran’s Tasnim News Agency has called the behavior of three Iranian karate athletes at the Karate-1 Premier League competition in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates (UAE), last week, “unfortunate" and "strange" and called on Iran's top sports directors to discipline the athletes.
Saleh Abazari, Mehdi Khodabakhshi and Keyvan Baban are top karatekas for Iran’s national team; but they were not allowed to compete at Karate-1, so to not lose their rankings in the international arena, they staged a dramatic symbolic fight in Fujairah the day before the formal competition began.
Why were the athletes barred from competition and why did Tasnim – which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – criticize their presence at the tournament?
Shargh newspaper, in a February 16, 2022 article entitled “The problem of Iranian athletes not facing representatives of Israel", reported concerns within the Iranian Karate Federation about sending its athletes to the Karate-1 competitions. The newspaper added that this was because Israeli karate athletes were also due to appear.
Shargh reported that if the presence of Israeli athletes was confirmed, the Iranian national karate team would not be sent to the Karate-1 competitions; 24 hours later, the Karate Federation said it would not send any athletes to Karate-1. A major competition in the Iranian national team’s schedule was therefore cancelled because of Iran’s ban on competing against Israelis and concerns that, if Iranians attended Karate-1 but refused to compete against their Israeli counterparts, the Iranian Karate Federation would be banned from future fixtures.
Last year, the Karate Federation did not allow the Iranian national team to participate in the UAE at the World Championships.
But the Iranian team was the champion for three seasons in the Karate-1 league and could have achieved this position for the fourth time in a row – had they competed.
A Bind Between Cometing Against Israelis and Facing Suspension
In January 2018, IranWire reported that the Israeli Wrestling Federation was trying to eliminate Iranian wrestling from world and international competitions within the next 10 years or less.
The report said that Iran’s Wrestling Federation and the Ministry of Sports and Youth understand that the Israeli Wrestling Federation is working to increase the chances of Iranian freestyle wrestlers in all weight categories having to face its own athletes. Given Iran’s policy on barring its athletes from competing against Israelis, the strategy is designed to heighten the chances that Iran will be suspended from other tournaments.
Israel’s first step was to recruit wrestlers from outside the country. Vladislav Grisko (65 kg) and Vadim Goncharenko (70 kg) from Ukraine, Mark Popov (70 kg) from Georgia and Robert Avansian (Armenia), who are also Israeli citizens, all went to the mat for Israel in 2017.
Wrestling was not the only sport targeted by Israel to put the Islamic Republic in a bind between competing against Israelis or accepting suspensions.
Israel’s Maccabiah competitions date back to 1929 when Youssef Yektili, founder of the Maccabi Association, the Israeli Football Association and the Olympic Committee, launched his plans for Jewish sports competitions around the world. The first tournament was held in Tel Aviv in 1932 and gradually acquired official status.
The Team America news portal claimed that in 2017, more than a thousand athletes from 80 countries participated in 43 sports in the Maccabiah. Most of the athletes competed in martial arts, especially wrestling, karate, judo and Taekwondo: all essential sports for Iran’s sporting federations.
The Iranian Judo Federation was, meanwhile, suspended from international competitions due to a ban on the country's judokas fighting Israeli opponents. The Iranian Wrestling Federation received a serious warning from the World Wrestling Union, and the Karate Federation has banned its athletes from participating in world competitions.
On March 5, 2020, the text of a conversation from the meeting of Massoud Soltanifar, then Iran’s Minister of Sports and Youth, with some of the presidents of Iranian sports federations, was seen by IranWire. Soltanifar is reported to have said: "We will not send an athlete who has an Israeli rival in his weight or group to [compete in] Tokyo.”
Less than a month after the report was published, the Inside the Games website, a sports whistleblower platform, quoted Thomas Bach, head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as saying that senior Iranian sports officials, during a meeting in Geneva, had promised to commit to the Olympics Charter. The Charter prohibits players from any country refusing to compete against athletes from another country.
Bach also claimed he would not suspend Iranian sports, as the country had signed an agreement to stop any discriminatory policies against Israeli athletes. He added that a letter signed by two high-ranking Iranian sports officials, Soltanifar and Reza Salehi Amiri, confirmed the development.
But since then, appearances by Iranian athletes or sports teams in world, international and even Olympic competitions where there was a possibility of facing Israeli opponents have been canceled. The latest example of this are two bans on Iranian karate athletes from participating internationally within the past three months.
The ban explains why Tasnim – with its hardline credentials – has denounced the presence of Saleh Abazari, Mehdi Khodabakhshi and Keyvan Baban at Karate-1.
Tasnim claimed in its report that all three traveled to the UAE at their own discretion and expense. The report also insinuated that the athletes made the trip after taking bribes.
Mehdi Khodabakhshi holds four karate gold medals from Asian and world competitions. Saleh Abazari also holds four gold medals and two bronze medals from Asian and world championships. Keyvan Baban won silver at the World Championships and a gold medal at the Asian Championships.
"The great hero of the Islamic world”
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Bijan Seifkhani, a 74kg weightlifter from Iran’s Gilan Province, was the first athlete to compete against an Israeli opponent, in 1983, when he competed and won the World Freestyle Wrestling Championships in Kyiv, Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, against Israeli wrestler Robinson Konashvili.
Kayhan newspaper called the athlete "the great hero of the Islamic world” after his victory. But hours later, Ali Akbar Velayati, then Iran’s foreign minister, ordered the entire team to return to Iran. The Iranian government declared that no Iranian athlete had the right to compete against an Israeli – “Zionist” — opponent under any circumstances or in any formal or informal competition. The ban has never been written into law.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Iranian state broadcaster used the phrase "support the oppressed people of Palestine" when promulgating the ban. But after Arash Miresmaeili did not fight his Israeli opponent at the Athens Olympics in 2004, the International Olympic Committee decided to dismiss the entire Iranian national team from the competition.
Then Nasrollah Sajjadi, head of Iran's team at the 2004 Olympics, had vowed that no Iranian athlete would decline to compete against Israeli opponents. The IOC agreed that the Iranian team could stay in Athens in exchange for Miresmaeili’s departure.
Today, on Iranian state radio, there is no mention of defending the oppressed people of Palestine when insisting on the ban. But Tasnim, without mentioning Israel or even the reason for preventing the travel of Iranian national players, has called for serious punishment against the three karate athletes.