A story on the federation’s website suggested Mollaei could compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics without representing Iran; the Associated Press reported that the IJF is exploring the possibility of Mollaei competing on the IOC’s team of refugees.
The Israeli government applauded the ban and said action from international sports organizations has been years in the making.
“For far too long countries like Iran prefer to sabotage their excellent athletes, demanding they give up their dreams for the country’s relentless effort to delegitimatize Israel,” Elad Strohmayer, a spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington, said in a statement. “It’s absurd and cruel, and it’s commendable that the International Judo Federation is finally addressing it.”
A representative from the Iranian mission at the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. The president of Iran’s judo federation told a semi-official Iranian news agency that the suspension was “hasty and unfair,” according to the AP.
The Iranian team will be allowed to compete at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo because the Iranian Olympic Committee, not the judo federation, sponsors the athletes. Only the judo federation faces the suspension.
Iran, which doesn’t formally recognize Israel as a country, has for decades prohibited its athletes from competing against Israeli opponents. That has led to repeated controversies about violations of the Olympic Charter, which prohibits “discrimination of any kind, such as race, color, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
In May, ahead of the world championships, the Iranian National Olympic Committee wrote to IJF leaders pledging the Islamic Republic would “fully respect the Olympic Charter and its nondiscrimination principle.” The IJF hailed the decision as “historic,” and Mollaei and Israeli judoka Sagi Muki appeared on a course to meet in the world championship as the top-ranked fighters in their weight class.
But before Mollaei’s quarterfinal bout against Khasan Khalmurzaev of Russia, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist, on Aug. 28, the Iranian first deputy minister of sport called the Iranian team coach and told him to withdraw Mollaei from the match, according to the IJF’s account.
Mollaei fought anyway and won the bout. Before his next event, according to the IJF, an Iranian diplomatic delegation arrived at the venue and Iranian Olympic Committee President Reza Salehi Amiri called with a thinly veiled threat: Iranian security forces were at his parents’ home.
He lost the match against Casse — “I could not compete because of the law in my country and because I was scared of consequences for my family and myself,” he said, according to the IJF — and then lost the bronze medal bout to Georgia’s Luka Maisuradze.
“Today, the National Olympic Committee of Iran and the Sport Minister told me to not compete, that I had to comply with the law,” Mollaei said afterward, according to the federation. “I am a fighter. I want to compete wherever I can. I live in a country whose law does not permit me to. We have no choice, all athletes must comply with it. All I did today was for my life, for a new life.”
Iran’s ban on competition with Israeli athletes dates to the 1979 Islamic revolution, said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, when the new nonsecular government used anti-Israel and anti-Western sentiment to whip up popular support.
But 40 years later, the rabid anti-Israel and anti-West movement has faded, he said, even as the government continues to push the same diplomatic strategy that has isolated Iran in global politics.
“Here is a young, successful athlete who’s had his career ruined because of the foreign policy,” Vatanka said. “But you have thousands of young men like him walking around Iran looking for employment and wondering, ‘Why am I where I am economically? Why can’t I find a job?’ It’s a regime that has a foreign policy that has an impact way outside of sports.”
Already this month, Iranian sports fans were confronted with the death of a young woman by self-immolation outside a courthouse in Tehran. She was facing a prison term for dressing up as a man to watch a soccer match — women are barred by law from watching men play soccer — and set herself alight.
Another Iranian athlete, para-archer Pourya Jalalipour, left his team after the world championships in July to seek asylum in the Netherlands, according to Radio Farda, the Persian edition of Radio Free Europe.
In 2018, Rasoul Khadem — the coach of the Iranian wrestling team, one of the most popular Olympic teams in the country — quit his post rather than tell athletes to forfeit matches against Israelis.
“That’s a gutsy thing to do, to resign or walk off the team, because the regime will view that as a political statement, and that’s your career,” Vatanka said. “Not only are they questioning this in Iran, but they’re potentially risking their careers and imprisonment and harassment from the regime.”
Muki, the Israeli champion, told the Jerusalem Post that he one day hoped to face Mollaei and that judo could be a sport that encouraged the normalization of relations with Iran. He said the Iranian people “don’t hate us [Israelis]." He called the Iranian government “extreme.”
“I have two dreams,” he said. “One is to win the gold medal at the Olympics. But I also dream to face Mollaei, and it doesn’t matter who wins. I want to shake his hand, give him a hug. This way, we will not only show honor for each other, but together we can show that sport is above everything else.”