Defeating U.S. Is Only Part of the Challenge
By Anne Swardson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 21, 1998; Page A19
LYON, France, June 20 Pity the poor players on the Iranian national soccer team.
Not only must they win Sunday's game against the United States here to advance to the next round of the World Cup. Not only must they play knowing the Iranian public desperately wants a victory against "the Great Satan."
They also must follow the dictates of domestic politics. For example, during the exchange of gifts between teams before kickoff, they must not seem overly friendly with the American players. To do so could create a conservative backlash against the moderate government of President Mohammed Khatemi, who favors Iran's participation in international sports.
Such is the state of play in the 1998 World Cup, where in this long-awaited game, politics cannot be separated from soccer, no matter how badly the coaches and players wish it could.
Ever since the United States and Iran were thrown into the same group of competitors in the World Cup random draw, it has been clear that more than sports was at issue. The World Cup is the largest sporting event in the world, with 64 games and an estimated 37 billion television viewers. But it also is a series of contests between nations, whether they are friendly or adversarial on the political field.
For nearly 20 years, since 52 Americans were held hostage by Islamic revolutionaries in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for 444 days, Iran and the United States have had no diplomatic relations. American companies are prohibited by executive order from doing business in Iran, while foreign companies are subject to U.S. sanctions if they invest $20 million or more in developing Iran's oil industry. Iran has been implicated in numerous terrorist acts against Americans and Europeans.
In the past year, Iran and the United States have begun to move toward each other. In an interview with CNN in January, Khatemi called for unofficial exchanges with an eye to establishing a dialogue. In February, a team of American wrestlers went to Iran and competed in an international tournament, the first time American athletes had competed there since before the 1979 revolution.
In May, President Clinton reached an accord with the European Union that effectively permitted a huge French-Russian-Malaysian oil deal in Iran that otherwise would have been prohibited by the investment law. And last week, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said the two nations should develop "a road map leading to normal relations."
All this has taken place since the Dec. 4 draw that paired the two nations in sport, along with Germany and Yugoslavia in the four-country group. The top two will move on to the next round in the tournament.
No one contends that these moves toward rapprochement have any connection to Sunday's match. A State Department official said even the timing of Albright's speech five days before the game was happenstance.
Still, when millions of Iranians and Americans gather before their television sets at 11:30 p.m. in Tehran and 3 p.m. on the East Coast, this will not just be another game.
"A lot of people here look at it as a good football match, but others see it as a political showdown," said Farhang Rajaee, an international relations professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, in a telephone interview from Tehran, where he is visiting. "People feel we are equal to Americans, and this is a way we can show it."
For the United States, the sporting pressure is great. The team must beat Iran to have any hope of advancing to the next round. But politically, the American government is taking a low-key approach. The highest-level U.S. attendee at the game will be the Paris embassy's No. 2 official, charge d'affaires Robert Pearson.
In an interview with Univision Television to air Sunday, President Clinton said: "I hope it [the game] can be another step toward ending the estrangement between our nations. I am pleased that over the last year, President Khatemi and I have both worked to encourage more people-to-people exchanges."
The State Department official said the game is seen as part of "a flow of events. It's not really a political event, but it will be interesting because there will be millions of people around the world focusing on the relations between the United States and Iran."
Among ordinary Americans, especially young ones, Iran does not seem to occupy the place in the public psyche that it used to. The hostage crisis was nearly two decades ago. The terrorism and rhetoric since then have been highly visible on a diplomatic level, but less so in public opinion.
"When I talk to my classes, a lot of students don't remember the Iranian revolution at all," said James A. Bill, an Iran specialist and the director of international studies at the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. "You have a new generation here, a new generation of Americans and a new generation of Iranians."
His comments are mirrored by Iranian coach Jalal Talebi, who said: "The players at that time [the revolution] were 6 and 7 years old. They don't want to go through politics."
Nonetheless, young Iranians have been brought up in a more politicized environment than their American counterparts. And soccer, unlike wrestling, is seen as a secular, Westernized sport. Though the country has opened up in the past 10 years, Khatemi since his election last year has been in a power struggle with fundamentalist clerics who oppose contacts with the United States and who may wish to use the game to further their views.
After French television aired an American film perceived as anti-Iran last week, players on the Iranian team held a news conference to protest. They may have been genuinely angry, or they may have been acting to appease conservatives, especially in Iran's Paris embassy, who oppose Iran's participation in the World Cup. It is the first time since 1978 that the national soccer team has taken part.
"The [conservatives] are trying to make sure the match fails. There are some who don't want Iran to play," said Javad Tabatai, a historian and researcher at France's National Institute for Scientific Research.
Much depends on what happens on the field at the Stade de Gerland here in France's second-largest city. Unnecessary roughness or a bad referee call could ripple beyond the sporting world, especially if the outcome of the game is affected.
"Many Iranians tend toward conspiracy theories not always without reason and victimization," said Christian Bromberger, a sociology professor at the University of Aix-en-Province who has studied soccer extensively in Iran. "If there is a referee error, it could be highlighted in Iran."
And there are the spectators. Some 5,000 Iranians are expected (along with some 3,500 Americans), but not all will come with the same point of view. It is not known who will be in the official Iranian delegation, but many of the others who will make the trip from Iran are likely to have government, military or intelligence connections.
Also in the stands will be Iranians who live in Europe. These exiles are often people who fled the revolution and are actively opposed to the Islamic regime. There have been reports they may attempt to disrupt the game. In Iran, politics, unlike soccer, has more than two sides.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company