The International Chess Federation has threatened Iran with suspension because of its continuing refusal to allow Iranian chess players to compete with Israelis.

Nigel Short, vice president of the International Chess Federation (FIDE) and the most accomplished British chess player of the twentieth century, said that following the non-compliance of the Iranian Chess Federation with the commitments and statutes of the international federation, the body has warned Iran it faces suspension. It set out the details of Iran’s failure to honor its obligations in a resolution prepared in anticipation of FIDE’s General Assembly meeting (GA). The federation has urged Iran not to politicize sport or use it for propaganda purposes.

Iran’s continued refusal to ignore the international federation’s rules, including upholding equal rights regardless of race, citizenry, gender, or sexual identity, has prompted the world governing body to take action. If suspended, Iranian chess players would not be able to compete in or host international chess competitions.

In particular, the International Chess Federation has said it will not tolerate Iran’s practice of pressuring Iranian chess players to refuse to compete with Israeli opponents, including numerous occasions of chess players being intimidated by security forces. It also points to the widespread emigration of Iranian chess players due to the Islamic Republic’s obvious political interference in the affairs of the country’s domestic federation.

Short and English Chess Federation delegate Malcolm Pein tabled the motion calling for tougher measures to be taken against Iran, supported by FIDE President Arkady Dvorkavich and the rest of the federation’s council.

Prior to this, in 2019, Dvorkovich wrote to the Iranian federation, saying if Iran did not heed FIDE's legal warnings, it “can expect a suspension or sanctions."

Dvorkovich had warned the federation that avoiding competition with Israeli athletes was "a clear example of discrimination in sport" and that if such behavior continued, he "could not prevent the suspension of the Iranian Chess Federation".

Speaking to the Chess 24 website about the November 2020 announcement, Nigel Short said, “We are ratcheting up the pressure on Iran to comply and if it fails there will be repercussions.”

He told BBC Persian, ”We have issued the latest warnings to Iranian sports officials and our goal is to change the course of the Iranian Chess Federation." He stressed that Israel had made no attempt or lobby to suspend Iranian chess and that the decision was not a political one.

The federation’s new resolution states: “That failure of the Iranian Chess Federation to request their players compete against all countries in FIDE before the next GA, or any future boycott by an Iranian player, will automatically result in the Iranian Chess Federation’s suspension from all FIDE activities.”

Nigel Short says FIDE has only recently taken action on Iran’s obvious ban on Iranian chess players facing Israelis in competitions. “For decades, FIDE had a policy — an unofficial policy, it wasn’t written anywhere — of 'forbidden pairings,' so they basically allowed countries to boycott Israel,” he told IranWire via Skype. “This policy was introduced in the early 1980s by the then president of FIDE Florencio Campomanes. He was a consummate politician and he was looking for votes. And in fact he got re-elected in 1986 in the United Arab Emirates and Israel was excluded. Although it was never official policy it ran up until the new administration in 2018.”

He said when the new administration, including he as vice president, was ushered in, they were determined to change that and other policies. “It’s in our statute that you can’t discriminate against countries. It causes all sorts of problems. Once you start altering the pairings for tournaments for one team, you start altering it for the other teams as well."


Nigel Short and Iran

Nigel Short is widely known as the best English chess player of the twentieth century, and before becoming FIDE’s vice president also worked as a columnist for several newspapers. In 1984, when he was only 19 years old, he became a grandmaster and for two years was the third best chess player in the world. As of November 2020, he is ranked 49 in the world.

He has won many world chess tournaments in 29 countries. He faced Russian grandmaster chess champion Garry Kasparov in the controversial 1993 World Chess Championship.

In 2002, Short traveled to Tehran to play chess Iranian grandmaster Ehsan Ghaem Maghami, the best chess player in Iran at the time. "One of my main goals in holding this competition is to establish political and social relations between Iran and Britain,” he said on his arrival.

He opposed Ghaem Maghami six times, won four times and lost twice, eventually winning the $5,000 prize. 

Short returned to Iran five years later. Throughout those years, Short wrote for the Sunday Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, in which he praised Iranian chess players and their talent. So it seemed a natural development for Iranian sports to embrace him. Then, in 2007, Nigel Short became the head coach of the Iranian national chess team.

During his time as coach, he worked with Ehsan Ghaem Maghami and other famous Iranian chess players, including Alshan Moradi, Shadi Paridar, Atosa Pourkashian and Mitra Hejazipour.

In 2012, Short was once again invited to Tehran to compete against Ehsan Ghaem Maghami, and he also came to Iran in 2014 to participate in the Star Cup international competition.

But the politics of sport was never far away.

In October 2016, Nazi Pakizdeh, a Georgian-American chess player, called for a boycott of the World Chess Tournament in Iran because of Iran’s policy of forcing women to wear hijab, which she spoke about in an interview with the Telegraph. She had the vocal support of many activists on the issue. Others, however, stood against the boycott, saying it would have a detrimental impact on Iranian female athletes.

Nigel Short supported the boycott, tweeting on September 27, 2016: “2017 Women's Wrld Ch. awarded to Iran. Women forced to wear the Islamic hijab, flouting FIDE statutes against sex & religious discrimination."

Iranian sports federations were happy to read Nigel Short’s compliments of Iran’s chess talents in English-language press, and they happily welcomed him as coach. Unsurprisingly, though, when he started talking about hijab, Iranian media had a lot to say on the matter.

On January 14, 2017, Iranian Students News Agency described Nigel Short as an "anti-Iranian" who had been "ungrateful toward Iranian authorities” despite being welcomed with a "red carpet" when invited to compete in the international competitions in Anzali in northern Iran.

On the same day, Mizan News Agency, which is affiliated with the judiciary, quoted Mehrdad Pahlavanzadeh, the president of the Iranian Chess Federation at the time: "The presence of Nigel Short in Iran proves that he does not believe in what he had said and this will be to our advantage.”


Out of Chess Could Mean Out of the Olympics

Today, some in Iran view Nigel Short, the former head coach of the Iranian national chess team and the man who played a formidable role in the growth and talent of Iranian chess, as the architect of unfair punishment brought against the Islamic Republic.

“In the last couple of years, we’ve had at least a dozen cases where the Iranian Chess Federation (ICF) has been in breach of FIDE statutes,” Short told IranWire. “It started with Aryan Gholami, a very young player, and he played the Realtor Cup in Sweden and he forfeited his game. I happen to know he was very unhappy about it. When he went back to Iran, there was this great entourage from the federation meeting him at the airport. There were television cameras. He then went to meet various people in government and he met General Soleimani. This was very clearly used for propaganda purposes.”

Anyone who follows Iranian sport and politics knows that it’s not simply the chess federation that has taken umbrage with Iran’s sports federations: so have the international governing bodies for football and volleyball, FIFA and FIVB. In September, the International Judo Federation suspended Iran’s Judo Federation until further notice. All follow and are committed to the Olympic Charter and its principles.

“One or two people say they [Iranians] don’t take chess very seriously,” says Nigel Short. “Well, that is absolutely not true. They know that it is a test case. Chess is not an Olympic sport but we’re IOC [International Olympic Committee]--recognized and chess is widely considered to be the ultimate mind sport, and many people have that view. Iran has some tremendously talented players. I had a successful stint there with the team [as the coach] and they’ve gone on further from that time and they’ve got an even better generation nowadays. So chess is important to them. The earliest references to chess in literature are found in Persia around 600 AD. So there is a very, very long association with the game.

"With Judo, it’s already happened. Wrestling, they’re in trouble. If it goes to chess as well, they are in severe danger of being kicked out of the IOC and the Olympic Games. [President of the IOC] Thomas Bach is following what’s going on and he’s written to the ICF on different matters in the past. This is not some irrelevant, minor sport. It is a test case. They state constantly that they adhere to the FIDE and IOC statutes, but they don’t.”


Related coverage: 

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

Parliament Poised to Ban Iranian Athletes from Competing Against Israelis

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