Shawn Charles and Mahdy Kaveh shook hands and squared off, heads lowered and almost butting, both men pulling and tugging, snapping and grabbing for a firm hold on a bare shoulder or neck. For two minutes they pushed back and forth, seeking leverage in the standoff, until Charles lifted Kaveh's leg. Then they went to the mat.

Almost two decades after the United States and Iran severed diplomatic contacts, the archenemies finally made contact -- bodily contact -- today in the persons of Charles and Kaveh, wrestlers representing their estranged countries in an international tournament in the Iranian capital.

Charles and his four teammates are the first American athletes to travel to Iran since the 1979 attack on the U.S. Embassy here in which 52 Americans were taken hostage and held for 444 days. And the mat is not as unlikely a place for the two nations to become reacquainted as it might seem.

Wrestling is the most popular sport in Iran, and Iranians consistently win Olympic medals. Two members of the U.S. team, Kevin Jackson of Gilbert, Ariz., and Zeke Jones of Chandler, Ariz., are Olympic-medal winners and possibly better known to Iran's knowledgeable wrestling fans than to people in their own country.

Just as recent utterances by leaders in Washington and Tehran have revealed profound ambivalence -- laced with large measures of both hope and caution -- the presence of the U.S. team has stirred conflicting emotions here.

The Americans' arrival at the airport Tuesday was front-page news in the English-language Tehran Times, but Persian-language papers played down or ignored the story. And when the Americans marched into Azadi Arena with 20 other teams, they received the second-loudest applause, after the Iranians. But a U.S. flag hanging from the ceiling along with those of other nations was not fully unfurled until after the opening ceremony.

For both countries, the burning of American flags outside the U.S. Embassy in 1979 remains an emotional memory. Even now, the flag is caricatured on the wall of a large Tehran building, with skulls for stars and falling bombs for red stripes. One American wrestler, Melvin Douglas of Mesa, Ariz., said he had decided to leave behind his uniform, which bears a stylish suggestion of the U.S. flag.

"I didn't bring the flag," he said. "They burn flags."

Two other American wrestlers, Charles and Jones, insisted on wearing their national uniforms. "I'm definitely wearing my American singlets," Jones said. "I feel safe. The people are fine."

Each time an American has climbed the Persian-carpeted stairs to the wrestling platform, Iranian fans have whistled in appreciation. Jackson also received a burst of whistles for a move in which he hoisted a Greek opponent over his shoulders, slammed him down and pinned him to the mat.

Coming a month after Iranian President Mohammed Khatemi made overtures to the United States and the Clinton administration responded by repeating a proposal for official talks, the Americans' visit has prompted hopeful comparisons to the successful "Ping-Pong diplomacy" of nearly three decades ago between China and the United States.

In 1971, an American team visited China to compete in table tennis matches. Three months later, Henry Kissinger, who was then President Richard M. Nixon's national security adviser, made a secret visit to Beijing. Nixon went to China the next year, and continuing diplomacy resulted in normalized relations in 1979.

But numerous obstacles stand in the way of reaping similarly significant results here from an athletic engagement. In contrast with its elected president's moderation, Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has ruled out contacts with Washington and still rails at the nation that his late predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, dubbed "the great Satan." For its part, Washington still has major concerns about the Islamic Republic's involvement in international terrorism, development of nuclear weaponry and opposition to the Middle East peace process.

"The political will is not there on either side yet," said John Marks, director of Search for Common Ground, a Washington-based group of citizen diplomats that facilitated the American athletes' visit. "But you can conceive that it could be {a better relationship}, given a push."

Both sides have made warm gestures. In a Jan. 7 interview with CNN, Khatemi proposed unofficial cultural exchanges, expressed regret for the taking of 52 American hostages in the 1979 embassy seizure and praised the religious tolerance of the "American civilization."

President Clinton used the occasion of the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan to endorse the Iranian president's call for exchanges of scholars, artists, writers and tourists. His national security adviser, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, said restrictions on visas for Iranians would be reviewed.

Then, at a world economic summit in Switzerland this month, Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, shook hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. The impromptu encounter is believed to be the highest-level contact between American and Iranian officials since 1979.

Months before Khatemi's CNN interview, Iran's wrestling federation had invited the American team to compete in the Takhti Cup tournament, just as it has for the past few years. This time the American federation overcame its concerns about security and accepted. Iran granted visas to five wrestlers, five officials accompanying them and American journalists who came to cover their visit.

With so many countries represented in the tournament, it was not until the evening of the tournament's third day that an American and Iranian squared off in the nearly full arena, which seats 12,000. The whistles for Charles, a coach at Central Michigan University, were loud, but not as loud as those for Kaveh as he came to the mat. The all-male crowd chanted the home country's name during the match and, after Kaveh fell behind, they chanted his name. But in the end, it was Charles who drew sportsmanlike whistles from the crowd when the referee raised his hand in victory. CAPTION: American wrestler Shawn Charles, left, gets a congratulatory kiss from Iranian wrestler Mahdy Kaveh after Charles won their match in Tehran -- the first visit to Iran by U.S. athletes since 1979.