United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Sport I:Iran and US Wrestle--in a different way

Garrett Nada

           Iran and the United States have at least one urgent interest in common: Their wrestling federations have teamed up to salvage wrestling for the 2020 Olympics after the Olympic Committee recommended dropping the sport in February 2013. The Iranian and American teams were scheduled to hold two friendly matches ― in New York on May 15 and in Los Angeles on May 19 ― to raise the sport’s profile before the committee makes a final decision in September. The Iranians beat the Americans 6 to 1 in New York.

      But the Iranian team’s first trip to the United States in a decade was cut short. The team abruptly flew back to Tehran on May 16. Iran’s wrestling federation told its U.S. counterpart that the team’s schedule had changed but did not provide further explanation. The Iranians said that they remain committed to keeping wrestling in the Olympics.
      Despite tensions between their governments, the American and Iranian wrestling organizations have developed a unique relationship over the past two decades. Iran’s national team has competed in the United States ten times since 1995.
      U.S. participation in Iran’s 1998 Takhti Cup marked the first visit by an American sports team since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The team has competed in Iran ten other times since then. Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling, discusses the U.S.-Iran wrestling relationship.

What is the nature of the U.S.-Iran wrestling relationship?
      We have a positive and strong relationship built on years of competition. The U.S. team has been to Iran 11 times. I have been on four of those tours, and the atmosphere has always been really positive. We have been greeted with open arms. Iranians have shown our athletes a great deal of respect on and off the field of play. Iranians have a high degree of wrestling knowledge, and they appreciate high-level competition. They have been really supportive of our athletes and have cheered them on. Most U.S.-Iran interaction revolves around competitions and exchanges, with the exception of our current joint effort to keep wrestling in the 2020 Olympics.
How are Iran and the United States coordinating their efforts to keep wrestling in the 2020 Olympics?
            I visited Iran for the freestyle World Cup in mid-February, less than a week after the Olympic committee recommended dropping wrestling. After I landed in Tehran, I immediately started talking to my Iranian counterparts about ways to collaborate.
            The international wrestling federation and 177 nations, including Iran and the United States, have launched a coordinated effort to retain wrestling as an Olympic sport. Our two federations are hosting the Los Angeles and New York matches in conjunction with “World Wrestling Month.”
What difference do matches like these have on diplomacy with Iran? What is the role of sports between nations?
            Sports are a force for good. They bring people together. And interaction increases understanding and lowers barriers. Love of sports is a commonality even among nations that see things differently in terms of politics and religion.
            “Ping-pong diplomacy” had a positive impact on the U.S.-China relationship in the early 1970s. The exchange of players helped pave the way for President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing.
            Wrestling in particular is one of the best sports to provide the opportunity for collaboration. The upcoming exchanges in Los Angeles and New York will feature some intense matchups. But the events are solely about raising wrestling’s profile. The U.S. and Iranian teams want to make a strong case for keeping wrestling in the Olympics.
How do the two teams compare?
      Iran, Russia and the United States have the top three teams in freestyle wrestling. Iran’s team won six medals at the 2012 Olympics, including three golds. Iran has won 38 medals in wrestling since 1948.
      In the 2012 games, the U.S. team took four medals, including two golds. The United States has won 129 medals in wrestling since 1904.
      Iran won the freestyle World Cup in February 2013. Russia took second place, followed by the United States.
How do U.S. and Iranian wrestling styles differ?
            Neither team has a particular style. The great thing about wrestling is that no technique necessarily works better than another. The athletes use a diverse range of styles and skill sets. There are similarities on both sides of the mat. Some wrestlers tend to be very technical, while others focus on their power.
How often do the teams compete? How do the athletes and coaches get along?  
            We meet just about every year at the World Championships, sometimes at World Cups and some other competitions. The United States regularly attends Iran’s annual Takhti Cup. The teams have a mutual respect for each other’s skills.
            The head coaches of the two teams, Zeke Jones and Gholamreza Mohammadi, actually wrestled against each other in the early 1990s. So the rivalry between the two teams has some history.
            The current rivalry dates from the finals of the 2012 Olympics. Jordan Burroughs beat Iran’s Sadegh Goudarzi for the gold medal in the 74 kilo weight class.
            One of the most interesting matchups in the upcoming tour will be between 120 kilogram heavyweights Tervel Dlagnev and Komeil Ghasemi. Iran’s Ghasemi beat Dlagnev for the bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics. 
            Friendly meets and exchanges provide opportunities for interactions off the mat, including occasional team meals together. But for the most part, athletes from both teams tend to stay in competition mode and focus on the matches.
Iran’s wrestling team has competed in the United States ten times:
1995 World Championships in Atlanta, Georgia
1995 World Cup in Chattanooga, Tennessee
1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia
1998 Junior World Championships in Primm, Nevada
1998 World Cup in Stillwater, Oklahoma
1998 Goodwill Games in New York City, New York 
1999 World Cup in Spokane, Washington
2000 World Cup in Fairfax, Virginia
2001 World Cup in Baltimore, Maryland
2003 World Championships in New York City, New York
Rich Bender is the executive director of USA Wrestling.
Photo Credits: Jordan Burroughs and Sadegh Goudarzi at the 2012 Olympics, courtesy of USA Wrestling.
Garrett Nada is a Program Assistant at USIP in the Center for Conflict Management.
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


Sport II: The Basketball Bridge

Garrett Nada

      For more than a decade, Iran has looked to the United States to improve its caliber of basketball. In 2000, the national team even hired American coach Gary LeMoine. Since then, dozens of Americans ― reportedly 37 during one season ― have played on Iranian teams. Jonas Lalehzadeh is among the best-known.
      Since 2011, the six-foot-five-inch point guard from California has played for the national team and two professional clubs in the Super League, Iran’s equivalent of the National Basketball Association. He was the league’s top scorer in the 2012-2013 season.
      Lalehzadeh has ties to both cultures, which makes him unusual among the Americans who play ball in Iran. His Iranian parents were completing their degrees in the United States during the 1979 revolution and decided to stay. He was born in 1989. He grew up in southern California, but was immersed in Persian culture and spoke Farsi at home. He had hoped to play professional basketball in the United States, but didn’t get drafted. So he turned to his parent’s homeland. In an interview, he discussed his experience playing basketball and living in Iran as an American.

What role can sports play in diplomacy? What do American and Iranians have in common on basketball?
          Sports can transcend political differences. American and Iranians both love basketball. Many young Iranians are diehard National Basketball Association (NBA) fans. They do whatever it takes to watch American games online. And they know their favorite players’ statistics by heart. Kobe Bryant and Lebron James have huge followings. The NBA’s only Iranian player, Hamed Haddadi of the Phoenix Suns, also has many fans. Iranians recognize the talent of American players and consider them among the world’s best.
What is the role of foreign players in Iran?
      Foreign players, especially Americans, are not only expected to score a lot of points. They are also expected to teach fundamentals to their Iranian teammates and improve their team’s overall ability. Some teams rely heavily on the performance of their foreign players, who are paid up to three times more than their Iranian teammates.
      As a result, Iran imposes a rule on how many foreigners can play at the same time. During the regular season, each team is allowed to have only one foreign player on the floor at a time. Two are allowed on the court during the playoffs. But most teams have only one foreigner.
How is the level of play in Iran? How do Iranian and U.S. styles differ?
            Iran has one of the best national teams in Asia. It’s won the Asia Championship twice. The level of play has improved significantly over the last decade. Iranians train just as hard as their U.S. counterparts. Friday is the only day off, so they train twice a day, six days a week.
            In Iranian basketball, big men play with more finesse and move more fluidly. In the United States, the big players focus on power. I have played off guard and point guard in Iran. Iranian guards are more physical than their American counterparts because international rules allow them to be more aggressive.
How did you end up playing professional basketball in Iran? What teams have you played for and what competitions have you participated in?
            I played basketball for my high school. I had a walk-on spot on the University of California at Irvine’s team in 2008. I played for three seasons.
            In one of the most unusual diplomatic outreach efforts, the State Department and the NBA invited Iran’s national basketball team to play in a summer league hosted by the Utah Jazz. The Iranian team played four games in the U.S. summer league to prepare for the 2008 Olympics. My father contacted the Iranians and told them about me. I went to Utah and trained with the team for a few days. The Iranian coaches were impressed and wanted me to play for Iran in the Olympics. But there was not enough time to get my visa.
            The Iranian team later invited me to play for the senior national team in 2011. So I skipped my senior season at Irvine and played in international tournaments for the Iranian team in Portugal and Hungary. 
            I decided to stay in Iran to get more playing experience at the professional level. I signed with Petrochimi Bandar Imam (a professional team) for the 2011-2012 Super League season. The team is based in Bandar Imam, a small town in Khuzestan province in southwestern Iran. I helped take the team to the Super League national finals for the first time in eight years. But we did not win.
            I then played for another team, Petrochimi Mahshar, in the 2012-2013 season. We made it to the playoffs despite the team’s low budget. I was the league’s high scorer during the regular season, averaging about 20.6 points per game.
            I was also invited to play for the senior national team, which is drawn from players on many Iranian teams, in the West Asia Basketball Association Championship in February 2013. We beat Lebanon in overtime and won the regional championship. The victory qualified Iran for the Asia Cup, which is scheduled for August 2013 in the Philippines.
How were you received in Iran? How was the transition?
            I grew up speaking Farsi with my parents and was already familiar with Persian customs and holidays. Iranians are very warm and hospitable, so they treated me as a guest at first. Learning about my parent’s home country was just as important to me as playing professional basketball.
            In Iran, print journalists and television media were interested in how I ended up playing in Iran, given political tensions with United States. I felt like an ambassador at times when answering questions about basketball and life in the United States. Many Iranians told me they think highly of Americans despite tension between Tehran and Washington. I was proud to represent both countries.
What are your plans and goals?
      I will do whatever it takes to get into the NBA. I might need to keep playing in Iran to gain more experience. I would also consider playing in Europe or the NBA development league.
      I have really appreciated the opportunity to play basketball and learn more about Iranian culture. My 47,000 Facebook fans and 9,000 Twitter followers have learned a bit about Iran while following my journey. I actually have not spent that much time in Tehran. The professional teams I have played for are based in Khuzestan, a province populated by many Arabs. I have enjoyed experiencing each province’s unique cultural, culinary and linguistic mix.


Sport I: Iran and US Wrestle in a Different Way 

Garrett Nada is a Program Assistant at USIP in the Center for Conflict Management.
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

Report: Obstacles to Containing a Nuclear-Armed Iran

            The United States may be pressed to adopt a containment strategy if efforts to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran fail, according to a new report by the Center for a New American Security. U.S. intelligence officials have testified that Tehran has not yet decided whether or not to pursue nuclear weapons. But Iran “may be able to achieve an unstoppable breakout capability or develop nuclear weapons in secret before preventative measures have been exhausted,” the report warns. The authors, including Colin Kahl, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East from 2009 to 2010, outline a strategy for the potential “day after” Iran gets a bomb. The following are excerpts, followed by a link to the full text.

            Although the United States is not likely to acquiesce to the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran, Tehran may be able to achieve an unstoppable breakout capability or develop nuclear weapons in secret before preventive measures have been exhausted. Alternatively, an ineffective military strike could produce minimal damage to Iran’s nuclear program while strengthening Tehran’s motivation to acquire the bomb. Under any of these scenarios, Washington would likely be forced to shift toward containment regardless of current preferences…
The strategy would seek to advance 11 core objectives:
• Prevent direct Iranian use of nuclear weapons;
• Prevent Iranian transfer of nuclear weapons to terrorists;
• Limit and mitigate the consequences of Iranian sponsorship of conventional terrorism, support for militant groups and conventional aggression;
• Discourage Iranian use of nuclear threats to coerce other states or provoke crises;
• Dissuade Iranian escalation during crises;
• Discourage Iran from adopting a destabilizing nuclear posture that emphasizes early use of nuclear weapons or pre-delegates launch authority;
• Persuade Israel to eschew a destabilizing nuclear posture that emphasizes early use of nuclear weapons or hair-trigger launch procedures;
• Convince other regional states not to pursue nuclear weapons capabilities;
• Limit damage to the credibility of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and U.S. nonproliferation leadership;
• Prevent Iran from becoming a supplier of sensitive nuclear materials; and
• Ensure the free flow of energy resources from the Persian Gulf.
To achieve these objectives, containment would integrate five key components: deterrence, defense, disruption, de-escalation and denuclearization. Each of these “five Ds,” in turn, would entail a number of specific policies, activities and resource commitments.
Deterrence would attempt to prevent Iranian nuclear use and aggression through credible threats of retaliation by:
• Strengthening U.S. declaratory policy to explicitly threaten nuclear retaliation in response to Iranian nuclear use and strengthening commitments to defend U.S. allies and partners;
• Engaging in high-level dialogue with regional partners to extend the U.S. nuclear umbrella in exchange for commitments not to pursue independent nuclear capabilities;
• Evaluating options for the forward deployment of U.S. nuclear forces;
• Providing Israel with a U.S. nuclear guarantee and
engaging Israeli leaders on steps to enhance the
credibility of their nuclear deterrent; and
• Improving nuclear forensics and attribution capabilities
to deter nuclear terrorism.
Defense would aim to deny Iran the ability to benefit from its nuclear weapons and to protect U.S. partners and allies from aggression by:
• Bolstering U.S. national missile defense capabilities;
• Improving the ability to detect and neutralize nuclear weapons that might be delivered by terrorists;
• Improving network resilience to reduce the threat posed by Iranian cyber attacks;
• Maintaining a robust U.S. conventional presence in the Persian Gulf and considering additional missile defense and naval deployments;
• Increasing security cooperation and operational integration activities with Gulf countries, especially
in the areas of shared early warning, air and missile defense, maritime security and critical infrastructure protection; and
• Increasing security cooperation with Israel, especially assistance and collaboration to improve Israel’s rocket and missile defenses.
Disruption activities would seek to shape a regional environment resistant to Iranian influence and to thwart and diminish Iran’s destabilizing activities by:
• Building Egyptian and Iraqi counterweights to Iranian influence through strategic ties with Cairo and Baghdad, leveraging assistance to consolidate democratic institutions and encourage related reform;
• Promoting evolutionary political reform in the Gulf;
• Increasing assistance to non-jihadist elements of the Syrian opposition and aiding future political transition efforts;
• Increasing aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces as a long-term check on Hezbollah;
• Continuing to assist Palestinian security forces and institution building while promoting an
Israeli-Palestinian accord;
• Enhancing counterterrorism cooperation and activities against the Iranian threat network, including expanded U.S. authorities for direct action;
• Expanding collaboration with partners to interdict Iranian materials destined for proxies such as Hezbollah; and
• Aggressively employing financial and law enforcement instruments to target key individuals within the Iranian threat network.
De-escalation would attempt to prevent Iran-related crises from spiraling to nuclear war by:
• Shaping Iran’s nuclear posture through a U.S. “nofirst-use” pledge;
• Persuading Israel to eschew a preemptive nuclear doctrine and other destabilizing nuclear postures;
• Establishing crisis communication mechanisms with Iran and exploring confidence-building measures;
• Limiting U.S. military objectives in crises and conflicts with Iran to signal that regime change is not the goal of U.S. actions; and
• Providing the Iranian regime with “face-saving” exit ramps during crisis situations.
Denuclearization activities would seek to constrain Iran’s nuclear weapons program and limit broader damage to the nonproliferation regime by:
• Maintaining and tightening sanctions against Iran; and
• Strengthening interdiction efforts, including the Proliferation Security Initiative, to limit Iran’s access to nuclear and missile technology and stop Iran from horizontally proliferating sensitive technologies to other states and non-state actors.
            If these steps are carried out, effective containment is possible. But it would be highly complex and far from foolproof. The residual dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran would be meaningful, and the consequences of a failure of containment would be profound. The success of the strategy would also depend on numerous factors that Washington can influence but not control, including the preferences of the Iranian regime, the decisions of key allies and partners and the degree of international cooperation in support of containment…
More resources by Colin Kahl:

Nukes Unlikely to Change Iran’s Strategy

            Nuclear arms would be unlikely to change Iran’s fundamental interests and strategy in the Middle East, according to a new report by the Rand Corporation’s Alireza Nader. Tehran is primarily concerned with survival. So it probably would not attack Israel or U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf if it were to attain nuclear weapons, according to the report. The Islamic Republic would not likely use them against its Muslim neighbors either. Iran “does not seek to invade, conquer, or occupy other nations,” argues Nader. The following are excerpts, with a link to the full text at the end.

            •The Islamic Republic is a revisionist state that seeks to undermine what it perceives to
              be the American-dominated order in the Middle East. However, it does not have
              territorial ambitions and does not seek to invade, conquer, or occupy other nations.
            •Nuclear arms would probably reinforce Iran's traditional national security objectives,
              including deterring a U.S. or Israeli attack.
            • Iran is unlikely to use nuclear weapons against other Muslim countries, particularly in
              view of its diminishing influence and deteriorating economy; it is unlikely to use them
              against Israel given Israel's overwhelming military superiority.
            •The Iranian government does not use terrorism for ideological reasons. Instead, Iran's
              support for terrorism is motivated by cost and benefit calculations, with the aims of
              maintaining deterrence and preserving or expanding its influence in the Middle East.
            •Iran's possession of nuclear weapons will create greater instability in the Middle East.
              An inadvertent or accidental nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran is a dangerous
              possibility. However, there is not much evidence to suggest that rogue elements could
              have easy access to Iranian nuclear weapons, even if the Islamic Republic were to
            •Elements of the political elite, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may be fervent
              Mahdists or millenarians, but their beliefs are not directly related to nuclear weapons
              and will not shape Iran's nuclear decision making.
             There is substantial evidence to suggest that Iran would not be greatly emboldened by a nuclear weapons capability. Nevertheless, Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons will create greater instability in the Middle East. An accidental or inadvertent nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel would be a dangerous possibility. Moreover, quite aside from how Iran might behave, its possession of nuclear weapons could arguably set off a cascade effect, encouraging other regional rivals to move in the same direction.


Latest on the Race: Candidates on U.S. Ties

Garrett Nada

      After the economy, the most controversial issue in the presidential election is normalizing Tehran’s ties with the United States. For the first time, both major conservative and reformist candidates actually embrace the idea that direct talks could bring Iran out of isolation by lifting sanctions. They all stipulate that Washington must first change its behavior and tone, but their initial positions may indicate a new openness to diplomatic compromise.
            The foreign policy debate has also provided candidates with yet another opportunity to blast outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Many blame the president’s inflammatory rhetoric for damaging Iran’s standing worldwide. Ahmadinejad’s claim that the Holocaust never happened has even become a campaign issue.
        • “Where did the case of the Holocaust [denial] take us?” said Tehran mayor 
                Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, a conservative presidential candidate.
        • Ahmadinejad’s words “provided the Zionists with something to make a row about,”
               said Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, another candidate and a parliamentarian.
        • The president should “think before talking and avoid disparate words,” said Akbar
               Velayati, chief foreign policy adviser to the supreme leader.
            Iran’s supreme leader has the final word on foreign policy. A senior cleric explicitly warned candidates against discussing issues beyond the president’s authority. “You are neither competent nor authorized to decide on the resumption of ties with the United States,” Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani, a member of the Assembly of Experts, said on May 3. The following are foreign policy positions of eight major candidates, according to Iranian news media. 
Mostafa Kavakebian, secretary general of the Democracy Party
• “Direct talks between Iran and the United States could be constructive and useful for both sides…”
• “Relations with United States are not a piece of merchandise you could buy right away. Rather we must be able to ward off sanctions and establish relations with the United States through a proper agenda and according to the 176th article of the constitution.”
• “Not all of our problems will be solved [by U.S. ties], rather the effects of the sanctions will at least be reduced…”
• “While I was in parliament, I presented a six-month plan which would improve Iran’s relations with the United States, and I still insist on this plan.”
Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, mayor of Tehran
• “It is wrong to tell society that the country’s problems will be resolved if we establish relations with the United States.”
• I “neither sanctify nor reject the possibility of holding direct talks with the United States.”
• Iran “should not be involved in disputes with other countries for no reason.”
• Iran needs “intelligent and rational” diplomacy.
• The nuclear energy program is “our most important foreign-policy topic.”
• Controversial and useless remarks “struck a blow against us…Where did the case of the Holocaust take us? We were never against Judaism; it’s a religion. What we opposed was Zionism.”
• Strengthening resistance under pressure is part of Iran’s strategy.
Hassan Rouhani, former head of the Supreme National Security Council
• “We should gradually harness this hostility [with the U.S.] and… move towards putting tension aside.”  
• “We must enter talks [with the West] only if we can guarantee our national interests…We must resolve the nuclear dispute. We must also stick to our nuclear [energy program]…”
• “No country can afford being cut off from the rest of the world.”
• Foreign policy should take a “rational direction.”
Mohammad Reza Bahonar, deputy speaker of parliament
• Tehran is ready for direct U.S. talks if the United States “does not have the upper-hand and a domineering position.”
• “We recognize U.S. interests… But when they [Americans] want to shake hands, they show an iron first to us. They should change that arrogant attitude first.”
• Build relations with all countries, except Israel, by 2025
• “Having or not having relations with a country is not a virtue.”
• Don’t change Iran’s nuclear policy and maintain the right to a civilian nuclear energy program.
• The nuclear issue needs to be solved through the United Nations, “not through political channels.”
• Fight terrorism and defend Muslims worldwide.
Mohammad Reza Aref, vice president under former President Mohammad Khatami
• Tehran would agree to bilateral talks with Washington if it stops setting conditions.
• Iran should depoliticize the controversy over its nuclear energy program and seek a win-win deal in negotiations.
• Direct talks with the United States would need to be regulated by the Supreme National Security Council.
• Iran should interact with all countries except Israel.
Ali Akbar Velayati, chief foreign policy adviser to the supreme leader
• Talks with Washington depend on U.S. behavior.
• Any direct negotiations with the United States would be based on the supreme leader’s guidelines.
• Expand relations with other countries and do not allow Iran to be driven into isolation.
• “Think before talking and avoid disparate words” in foreign relations.
• Continue “resisting against the expansionist policies of Western states.”
• Resolve economic issues through effective foreign policy and calculated steps
Mohsen Rezaei, Expediency Council secretary and ex-Revolutionary Guards chief
• “If negotiations take place between Iran and United States and end in failure, undoubtedly Iran will come under military attack…”
• Revamp foreign policy to confront sanctions more effectively.
Alireza Zakani, ex-health minister and current member of parliament
• “As for normalization of ties with the United States, Washington holds the key. It has to change its hostile attitude first.”
More "Latest on the Race"
Sampling of Iranian news sources for this article on the presidential race:


Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


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