American wrestler James Green shakes hands with spectators as they photograph him with their cell phones following his match at the World Wrestling Cup Final in Kermanshah, Iran, Feb. 17, 2017. (MEGHDAD MADADI/AFP/Getty Images)
by Dale Sprusansky , assistant editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
In November 2006, President George W. Bush restored Iran’s participation in the International Visitor Leadership Program, allowing hundreds of Iranians to engage in cultural, academic, scientific, athletic and other exchanges with Americans. It was the first time in 25 years that Iranians were invited to participate in the State Department program.
A decade later, proponents of people-to-people initiatives now hope that a Republican president will once again embrace such exchanges between the peoples of Iran and the U.S. Several advocates of these exchanges gathered at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC on May 5 to assess their future viability under the Trump administration.
Bahman Baktiari, executive director of the International Foundation for Civil Society, is optimistic that these exchanges will remain in place, citing USA Wrestling’s February participation in the freestyle wrestling World Cup held in Kermanshah, Iran.
Shortly before the U.S. team was set to depart for Iran, President Donald Trump announced his travel ban targeting seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran. In retaliation, the Iranian government denied visas to the American wrestlers.
Wrestlers in both Iran and the U.S., however, refused to let this diplomatic tiff disturb the long tradition of sports diplomacy between the two wrestling teams, which have met 32 times since 1998. The Iranian Wrestling Federation immediately lobbied its government to reconsider the visa applications of the American wrestlers, Baktiari noted, while the American wrestlers approached both the Trump administration and the media to stress the importance of sports diplomacy.
Shortly after these dual efforts were launched, the Iranian government decided to reverse its decision. While Tehran attributed its reversal to a U.S. federal judge’s decision to suspend Trump’s ban, Baktiari believes the pressure the Iranian wrestlers put on their government played no small role in getting the American wrestlers’ visas approved.
Baktiari is encouraged that voices in favor of sports diplomacy now carry great weight in both the U.S. and Iran. Wrestling exchanges between the two countries have been institutionalized to the extent that “no matter what government is in power in Tehran or Washington, these relationships will continue,” he stated.
Politicians in both countries have come to accept—and even endorse—U.S.-Iran wrestling exchanges, Baktiari added. In the U.S., this includes extremely conservative congressmen, he noted. “USA Wrestling right now has compiled a list of all the congressmen who are former wrestlers, and they are now making direct connections with them—and several Tea Party members are former wrestlers—and they have gotten these people on board,” he said.
In Iran—where wrestling is the treasured national sport—Baktiari pointed out that a presidential candidate recently endorsed wrestling diplomacy during a televised debate. “There is this natural energy, I think, that is not shown in the media, that is brewing,” Baktiari said of the Iran-U.S. wrestling relationship.
Stan Albrecht, former president of Utah State University, emphasized the importance of educational exchanges between the two adversarial countries.
In particular, Albrecht highlighted the critical role Iranian students play in the American college educational system. More than 12,000 Iranians are currently studying in the U.S., he observed, three-fourths of whom are graduate students. Half of these graduate students are studying the important fields of science and engineering, he added, saying, “They’re absolutely critical to what goes on at our universities, as teaching assistants, as research assistants, as research collaborators on a whole bunch of projects.”
Utah State University has for decades engaged in academic and research exchange programs with academic institutions in Iran, Albrecht continued. One such program allows researchers to cooperatively study two of the world’s largest inland saltwater lakes—the Great Salt Lake in Utah and Iran’s Lake Urmia. “It would be a tragic loss if something happened that we were unable to continue those types of partnerships,” he said.
Excluding Iranians and other international students from entering the U.S. would have a devastating impact on the country’s universities, Albrecht warned. The “constant historical and current infusion of intellectual power that comes from across the world” is the reason American universities have grown in prestige, he said. “We have a history of bright young people coming to the United States, studying at our universities, many of them staying, making a major contribution to our country, many of them returning home and making major contributions in their country,” he said.
These academic exchanges also have real economic and political impacts. Albrecht pointed out that international students contributed $32.8 billion to the U.S. economy during the 2015-2016 academic year. Denying access to brilliant minds from abroad, he added, puts the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage to countries such as Australia and Canada, who will gladly accept individuals disregarded by the U.S. Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative, observed that virtually all the Iranian negotiators involved in the successful nuclear talks received Ph.D.s from American universities.
Kamiar Alaei, associate dean at the State University of New York at Albany, noted that Iranian and American scientists have been cooperating for a number of years on public health initiatives. In particular, he highlighted the work he has done to bring American researchers to Iran to help the country better respond to its HIV epidemic. The joint effort has helped Iran significantly enhance its care for both those with HIV and those most vulnerable to contracting the disease, he noted. Despite facing a setback during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—during which Alaei was imprisoned for three years due to his outreach to high-risk individuals such as sex workers—the efforts of Alaei and the American researchers he recruited have resulted in a demonstrable improvement in the lives of many Iranians.
Regardless of how the Trump administration decides to approach Iran politically, Slavin hopes Washington will remain committed to fostering apolitical people-to-people exchanges between the two countries. “We hope that, whatever decisions the administration makes about U.S. policy toward Iran, it carves out a space to continue this kind of work,” she said.
Dale Sprusansky is assistant editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.