Tag Archives: Bahman Baktiari

The Case for People-to-People Ties Between Iran and the U.S.

2017wrestlerAmerican 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.

Continue reading The Case for People-to-People Ties Between Iran and the U.S.

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New Book: Diplomatic Games: Sport, Statecraft, and International Relations since 1945

“International sporting events, including the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup, have experienced profound growth in popularity and significance since the mid-twentieth century. Sports often facilitate diplomacy, revealing common interests across borders and uniting groups of people who are otherwise divided by history, ethnicity, or politics. In many countries, popular athletes have become diplomatic envoys. Sport is an arena in which international conflict and compromise find expression, yet the impact of sports on foreign relations has not been widely studied by scholars.”  

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My Article: Sport Diplomacy with Iran: Breaking Barriers, Bridging Differences

 Huffington Post, September 5, 2014

As diplomats from Iran and the United States work to end decades-long nuclear tensions, sports exchanges between Iran and the United States provide a unique opportunity to dispel stereotypes and prejudices and improve relations between the peoples of the United States and Iran. This can expedite the process of the eventual normalization of relations with Iran.

Sports have a universal language through which people can find a medium to express their affinity and communicate. No one is against sports, and athletes are respected around the world irrespective of their nationality or religion. Moreover, sports exchanges bring administrators, coaches, medical staff, trainers, athletes and diplomats together. They all have to work together to bring the best representation for their teams. It is a collective effort that cultivates cooperation, competition and even friendship. Sports exchanges break down barriers, cultivates shared interest and commonality, and eliminate the sense of “You are different” or “We are different.”

Iran and the United States may have a political cold war between them, but Iranians and Americans share a strong affinity for sports, appreciate vigorous competition, and seem uninfluenced by political trends. Even at the height of tensions between Iran and the United States, teams from both countries engaged each other, demonstrating incredible and unprecedented collegiality.

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For example, U.S.-Iran wrestling federations participated in dozens of competitions in Iran and in the United States since 1998. In July 2008, the national basketball team of Iran held practice sessions in Salt Lake City with NBA players. In May 2013, Iran, Russia and United States held a historic wrestling event in New York’s Grand Central Station. In March 2014, Iran participated in the wrestling World Cup competition in Los Angeles. In all of these visits, American athletes received star and warm treatment in Iran, and the Iranian teams visiting the United States were received warmly by Americans and the large Iranian-American community in the United States.

The best example of this cooperation was the USA Volleyball’s invitation by the Iranian Volleyball Federation to participate in a series of friendship games in Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Diego, and Irvine in August 2014. Organizing four major games in four different cities required resources, time, coordination, and communication with several bodies and agencies, including with the U.S. Department of State for visa facilitation and arrival logistics for the visiting Iranian team. This volleyball diplomacy broke several major barriers between Iran and the United States.

This was the first visit of the Iranian volleyball team to the United States since 1979 revolution, but even more significant, the games were held in Los Angeles area, a location with a large number of anti-Iranian regime organizations and media organizations. In August 1984, the Iranian government boycotted the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles fearing defections of its athletes and negative publicity. In August 2014, the Iranian government correctly calculated that the benefits outweigh the dangers, and allowed the Iranian volleyball team to travel to Los Angeles. For the first time in its history, the Voice of America Persian Service broadcast all the games live into Iran. In another unprecedented development, the Los Angeles City Council issued Proclamations of Friendships for both Iranian and American volleyball teams.

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This is the same council that in February 2013 voted for stronger sanctions against Iran. In 2015, USA Volleyball will hold two world competition games in Tehran, and Iran will do the same in the United States.

The soft power of sport has clearly had a positive impact on US-Iran relations. With sport exchanges we can build lasting bridges with the Iranian people and strengthen people-to-people relations. Any first time American visitor to Iran sees the apparent paradox of how the government expresses anti-American views while a large majority of Iranians are pro-American and do not shy from expressing their positive feelings toward American visitors.

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In the United States, however, most Americans have a negative image of Iran and cannot think of anything positive happening inside Iran. We need to inform Americans about positive changes taking place inside Iran, particularly in Iran’s remarkably vibrant civil society.

Organizing more sporting events in the United States will help change this misleading perception. Since over 60 percent of the Iranian population is under 24 years old, sports exchanges with Iran should also include exchanges with youth clubs and teams. Just like the way visiting American teams in Iran become the only contact with the U.S. for Iranians inside Iran, visiting Iranian teams to the United States are a major contact point with Iran for the large American-Iranian community.

It would not easy to reverse 35 years of a Cold War, even if the world powers sign a nuclear accord with Iran. Although sports exchanges by themselves cannot resolve all of our problems with Iran, with sports diplomacy we can lay the foundation for a lasting relationship between Iran and the United States. As Nelson Mandela put it:

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”

American athletes get star treatment in Iran

“Competing in May in a packed Tehran stadium in the World Cup for Greco-Roman wrestling, the American team is part of a revived spate of athletic and other US cultural exchanges with Iran. Both countries are opening the door for people-to-people diplomacy as their nuclear negotiators engage in a different kind of interaction and competition in Vienna.”  See Full Article.

Article: Can the U.S. and Iran Become Trustworthy Rivals?

Diplomats from the P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom) and negotiators from the United States and Iran have been diligently striving to meet the July 20 deadline for signing a historic and unprecedented accord assuring that Iran will not build nuclear weapons. Although the interim agreement signed in November 2013 allows for a six-month extension, prolonging these crucial negotiations in a time of extreme turmoil in the Middle East region is not in the interest of either Iran or the U.S. It is time to end 35 years of wasteful cold war and mutual satanization with Iran. Both nations must instead focus their full diplomatic powers on stabilizing the deteriorating security conditions in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.

Read the full article HERE