Bahman Nasiri, a member of the Iranian national rowing team, has emigrated to the Republic of Azerbaijan. The news was confirmed by Alireza Sohrabian, president of Iran’s Canoe, Sailing and Rowing Federation, after it emerged that Nasiri had asked for his name to be removed from the roster.
Unlike other Iranian sports federation bosses, Sohrabian did not take the opportunity to insult or diminish Nasiri for his choice. He said only that the rower had "wanted to find a job" and been unable to find one in Iran. Underpayment has been a key reason for sportspeople opting to leave Iran over the past decade. Had his salary in his main job been good enough, Nasiri would have been on his way to Hangzhou, China for the Asian Games next year.
Turned Down by the Fire Department, A Young Athlete Quits Iran
Bahman Nasiri is 25 years old and a native of the city of Zanjan in northwestern Iran. He won a gold medal for Iran in men’s single scull and a bronze in the quad sculls category at the 2019 Asian Rowing Cup, then qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. When it emerged the Olympics organizing committee had allocated just one spot to Iran, he voluntarily gave up his spot to Nazanin Malaei, Iran's top female rower.
In June 2021, while Iranian media outlets were praising Nasiri for his “gallantry” and selflessness, he revealed that he had been trying to get a job with Tehran Fire Department. In an interview with the news website Khabar Online, he said: “After speaking with Dr. Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, head of the Planning and Budget Organization, Mr. Sohrabian [president of the Federation] submitted my request to work with the Fire Department, and Mr. Nobakht issued the necessary order. I'm waiting for the Fire Department and the local authority to act so that I won't keep having financial worries."
Nasiri had repeatedly talked about his “financial worries” in previous interviews. Despite his own Federation chief having lobbied for him, it appears his attempt to secure a paid job in Iran was unsuccessful.
Azerbaijan: An Emerging Destination for Iranian Athletes
In the past five years, more than 50 Iranian athletes have either emigrated or have asylum in third countries. Those who became political refugees, such as the taekwondo champion Kimia Alizadeh, the judoka Saeid Mollaei or the boxer Mobin Kahrazeh will likely never be able to return home, while the position of Nasiri and others like him is more opaque.
In recent years the Republic of Azerbaijan has become something of a magnet for Iranian sportspeople. The judokas Arash Aghaei, who recently passed away, and Shayan Nasirpour, the wrestlers Saman Tahmasebi, Masoud Hashemzadeh and Sabah Shariati, the taekwondo athletes Sina Bahrami, Milad Beigi and Soheila Sayahi, the taekwondo coach Reza Mehmandoust, the wrestling coach Jamshid Kheirabadi and footballer Ali Ghorbani are just some of the Iranians who joined Azerbaijani national teams in the past few years.
One of the biggest draws is the far better salaries and rewards that Azerbaijan's government pays out to sporting champions. In 2016, for instance, the country's President Ilham Aliyev gifted Reza Mehmandoust, head coach of the Taekwondo Federation, $200,000 - in addition to his regular wage - after his team won medals at the Olympics. For sportsmen like Bahman Nasiri, being adequately paid for their principal vocation means they can stop worrying about pursuing a second job.
Unequal Wealth Distribution in Iranian Sports
Just recently, Esteghlal and Persepolis Football Clubs, which are both part-owned by Iran’s Ministry of Sports, were ordered by FIFA to pay the Croatian goalkeeper Bozidar Radosevic and Croatian wingback Hrvoje Milić more than $1.54 million for failing to meet their financial obligations towards them.
Meanwhile the Iranian Football Federation ostensibly pays female head referees just 120,000 tomans (US $28) per game. But as we reported in February, so far this season female Pro League referees have not been paid anything at all and have been seen on the pitch in hand-me-down kit from previous seasons.
While Nasiri had to leave Iran for financial reasons, late last month Tasnim News Agency reported that the extremely well-renumerated discus thrower Ehsan Hadadi would soon travel to the United States to set up a training camp for himself. Hadadi, one of Iran's most expensive athletes, is known to be close to hardline figures in the Islamic Republic and, despite a less-than-impressive record in the past few years, has spent a vast amount of money on his own concerns in the US. His training and medical bill over 39 months came to more than $1m and he receives a $10,000 a month stipend from the Iranian Athletics Federation. He came last in his group in the Olympics.
Hamid Reza Fardinpour, director of the national athletics team, has since said that not only he does not know whether Hadadi’s latest trip to the US will be paid for by the government or by Hadadi himself, but it remains uncertain if he will even be competing at the 2022 Asian Games.
Then last week, it was announced that that two women’s national teams - volleyball and handball - will not be going to Hangzhou because, according to Peyman Fakhri, the supervisor of Iranian teams at the Asian Games, their attendance would cost a total of seven billion tomans (more than $250,000) - too much, apparently.