The international relations chief at Iran’s Ministry of Sports has waded into the debate on Iranian athletes being blocked from competing with Israelis.

"The Iranian people do not have a view in line with the government and the ruling system on the Israeli issue," Farshid Tahmasebi told Radio Varzesh, in a startling but truthful admission. He went on to decry deep-rooted “cultural issues” in Iranian sports that he said were holding the country back – and even had a bearing on the economy.

This is not the first time a high-ranking Iranian sports official has explicitly spoken out against the 41-year-old policies of the Islamic Republic with regard to Israel. Rasoul Khadem, the former president of the Iranian Wrestling Federation, wrote separately to both Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Supreme National Security Council asking for the ban to be repealed.

In Khadem’s case, backlash from the regime, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Basij, later forced him to resign over the issue. Gholamhossein Gheibparvar, then-head of the Basij, said at the time: "This is not an area where they should think they can talk and test the ground… No further steps will be taken — because will break their legs when they make the very first move.”


Iran Scrambling to Save Face Over Outdated Policy

Despite the volcanic pronouncement of the Basij commander, Iran has already made concessions on this issue behind closed doors. In January 2020, sports and youth minister Masoud Soltanifar and Reza Salehi Amiri, president of Iran’s National Olympic Committee, attended what was supposed to be a private meeting in Switzerland with Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Even some high-ranking sports officials within Iran were not aware the meeting had taken place.

But Bach blew their cover after the discussion, stating that the IOC had received a letter from Iran that said the country would "in future fully comply with the Olympic Charter".  

By making this commitment, and thus tacitly promising to end the discriminatory policy against Israeli athletes, Iranian sports executives hoped to avoid suspension by the IOC. Their long-term plan, however, was revealed shortly afterwards when they instructed all Iranian sports federations not to send their athletes or teams at all to competitions in which Israelis would be participating.

On February 5, 2020, IranWire obtained information indicating that the Ministry of Sports and Youth had instructed all sports federations to prepare and submit to the Ministry of Sports, as soon as possible, schedules of world competitions being attended by Israeli teams or athletes. This was for the purposes of ensuring that no Iranian athletes would be dispatched to these contests.

In the meantime, though, Iran’s national judo team has been suspended by the World Judo Federation. Last month the exiled Iranian judoka Saeed Mollaei and two former teammates gave evidence against Iran in an explosive hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Flanked by a Swiss security detail, they testified that they had been blocked from competing with Israelis, with Mollaei forced to throw his semi-final match at the Tokyo 2019 World Championships to avoid the possibility.


Head of International Relations in Sports Criticizes Iran’s Record

For a figure as influential as Farshid Tahmasebi to publicly decry Iran’s foreign policy in sports came as a surprise for some. Tahmasebi’s remarks came without prompting from the interviewer and came after he had already criticized the self-centred management style at the top echelons of Iranian sports. "To this day,” he said, “I have never seen any manager help another manager who replaces him.”

He went on: “Has it ever been the case that the president of Iran has been present at the opening or closing of the Olympic Games? Before the outbreak of coronavirus and the postponement of the Olympics, I suggested that Mr. Rouhani attend the Tokyo games. But they said the president's schedule was full.”

Tahmasebi also made a curious comparison between countries’ sporting records and their economic prowess.  "If China is first in the [global] economy, it is also first in the Olympics. So is America. Take a look at the first to fourth ranking of countries in Olympics; they are all at the top of the world economies."

Integrity in politics and integrity in sports, Tahmasebi insisted, were “an ensemble”. “Excuse me, let me be clear,” he said. “In the case of Israel, our people do not agree with the government. If you take the government and leave out diplomacy, you will not get results; it’s impossible. Unless our parliament and our foreign ministry address the problems in Iranian sports diplomacy, nothing positive will happen."

Farshid Tahmasebi has previously served as a member of Iran’s Center for Strategic Studies’ science and technology committee, chairman of the research council for Tehran’s General Directorate of Sports and Youth, and dean of the faculty of physical education at Shahid Rajaei University. On his appointment as director-general of international relations at the Ministry of Sports in June 2020, the pro-regime Young Journalists Club dismissed him as having “no expertise in international affairs”.

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