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Soccer takes political role as Iran team flies to US

January 5, 2000

Financial Times (London)
January 5, 2000

TEHRAN — Iran’s national soccer team flies out today to play in the US for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution, another sign that ties between Tehran and the “Great Satan” are slowly improving.

At a last practice match at the national stadium yesterday Iran’s players, using the language of soccer stars the world over, described the January 16 encounter with the US team at the Rose Bowl at Pasadena, California, as “just another game”.

But Iran’s media, broadly divided into reformist and conservative camps, has left no doubt that sporting exchanges, like the “ping-pong” diplomacy between China and the US in the 1970s, are at the heart of a more serious political game.

Indeed the tournament, also involving Mexico and Ecuador, was nearly called off last month after Iran objected to the finger-printing of a group of clerics arriving in New York for an academic seminar. Iranian sports officials said the soccer team agreed to play in the US after assurances that no finger prints would be taken and visas would be issued promptly en route in Frankfurt.

With parliamentary elections due next month, conservative clerics, realised that to block the eagerly awaited match against the US would be a certain vote-loser. Some 20 Iranians now play in top European teams and one for the New York Metro Stars. Football players are heroes for the Iranian youth and with 60 per cent of the population aged under 20 and a voting age of 15, teenagers are a powerful political voice.

The 1997 election victory of the moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, has led the US to review its policy of “dual containment” of Iran and Iraq.

Washington’s offer of negotiations on resuming relations remains on the table, but Mr Khatami, who has only limited control of the levers of power in Iran and is under extreme pressure from hardline clerics, has made it clear the US must first make positive moves, such as the unfreezing of Iranian assets and the lifting of economic sanctions.

Tehran-based diplomats believe no consensus exists in either Iran or the US to kickstart the process of reconciliation, probably for at least a year.

Iran could be the next piece in the jigsaw for the US, however, once a peace deal is reached between Syria and Israel, analysts say.

The US is worried that Iran, or certain power centres, may be stepping up support for militant Arab groups to undermine the Arab-Israeli peace process.

But there is also a recognition that Mr Khatami has little control over Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who are suspected of links with Lebanon’s Hizbollah and the Palestinian faction Hamas.

While the US is waiting to see whether the reformist supporters of Mr Khatami can win control of parliament next month, Iran is taking a similar approach to the US presidential elections.

“Tehran believes the Republicans have historically proven themselves more in tune with Iran than the Democrats,” Iran Focus, an independent monthly, commented.

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