Warm Welcome for U.S. Wrestlers in Iran

The Associated Press
Tuesday, January 16, 2007; 4:41 PM

TEHRAN, Iran -- U.S. wrestlers were welcomed to Iran on Tuesday with bouquets of pink and white flowers at a time of increasing tensions between the two countries, recalling the days before Tehran's reformers were defeated by its current hard-line leadership.

The Americans, wearing jackets emblazoned with "USA Wrestling," were given the warm greeting by young girls in traditional Iranian dresses at an airport in the southern city of Bandar Abbas.

The 14 wrestlers are to participate Thursday and Friday in the Persian Gulf Cup, also known as the Takhti Cup, the top wrestling tournament in Iran, where the sport has been a national obsession for centuries.

In a small _ but, for Iranians, significant _ goodwill gesture, the American wrestlers were exempted from having their fingerprints taken as they entered the country. Iran imposed the fingerprint requirement on Americans after the U.S. imposed a similar rule on visiting Iranians. In 2003, Iran boycotted the world freestyle wrestling championships in New York because of the U.S. policy, seen as humiliating.

It is the first time that Americans have participated in the competition since hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, further souring already bad relations between Tehran and Washington.

Despite the courteous welcome, it was clear the Iranian government was not touting the U.S. visit as an attempt to bridge their differences _ unlike Ahmadinejad's predecessor, reformist President Mahmoud Khatami.

Iranian media gave low-key coverage of the wrestlers Tuesday, with government-run newspapers, radio and television mentioning their arrival, but making no commentary.

The visit came on the same day a U.S. aircraft carrier group was to start heading for the region in what Washington has said is a show of strength directed at Tehran.

Bandar Abbas lies on the northern side of the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the Gulf, which is patrolled by U.S. warships. American battleships can be seen from the city.

President Bush has accused Iran and its ally Syria of fueling bloodshed in Iraq and vowed the U.S. military would prevent them from supplying militants in the war-torn country.

Khatami, who was president from 1997 to 2005, encouraged cultural and sports exchanges with the United States to bring down the "wall of mistrust" between the two nations.

In 1998, a U.S. wrestling team became the first U.S. sports team to visit Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, when it participated in the same Persian Gulf Cup. Their arrival was eagerly awaited by the public, and in that year's tournament, some 12,000 fans in Tehran erupted in applause as a U.S. wrestler waved the Iranian flag after winning a silver medal.

Khatami and the reformists favored improved relations with the United States, which cut off diplomatic ties during the hostage crisis following the 1979 revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed shah. Since the revolution, opposition to the "Great Satan" has been an unwavering stance of Iran's hard-liners.

The reformists controlled parliament and had widespread popular support. But unelected clerical bodies dominated by hard-liners prevented them from openly embracing the United States _ so wrestling and other sports exchanges provided an opening they hoped to build on.

U.S. teams participated in Iranian wrestling tournaments from 1998 to 2004, and Iran sent teams to various sports competitions in the U.S.

But the sports link began to sour even before Khatami left power, particularly after Bush branded Iran part of the "axis of evil" in 2002 following the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. Besides the 2003 Iranian boycott of the New York wrestling matches, Iranian wrestlers and fencers also refused to participate in U.S. tournaments in 2004 to protest U.S. troops fighting Shiite militiamen in Shiite holy cities of Iraq.

Khatami's "wrestling diplomacy" failed to spark a wider cooperation between the two countries along the lines of the U.S. "pingpong diplomacy" with China ahead of President Nixon's landmark visit to Beijing in 1972.

Hard-liners prevented deep political change by the reformists and succeeded in pushing them out of parliament even before Khatami was forced to leave office due to term limits and Ahmadinejad was elected with strong hard-liner support in 2005.

The most recent prominent visit by Americans to Iran was hardly a boost to relations: Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and several other Americans attended a conference sponsored by Ahmadinejad's government in December calling into question whether the Holocaust took place. The event sparked outrage in the United States and Europe.

The U.S. freestyle wrestling team due to participate in this week's matches includes 2006 world silver medalist Mike Zadick, who wrestled for the University of Iowa, and 2005 U.S. world team member Andy Hrovat, who competed for the University of Michigan.

The U.S. team is made up of some members of the U.S. world team and the U.S. nationals champions. It is coached by Terry Brands, a two-time world champion and 2000 Olympic bronze medalist. The U.S. delegation is made up of 14 athletes and seven officials.

The tournament will bring together teams from Iran and several other nations, mostly from Central Asia.

© 2007 The Associated Press