Thu, Jan 18, 2007 - Page 19 News List

US wrestlers receive a warm welcome in Iran

GRAPPLING DIPLOMACY Twenty American athletes were greeted with flowers as they arrived in southern Iran to take part in this year's Persian Gulf Cup


A team of US wrestlers received a warm welcome in Iran on Tuesday at a time of increasing tensions between the two countries, recalling the days of "wrestling diplomacy" before Iran's reformists were defeated by its current hardline leadership.

The 20 Americans -- wearing jackets emblazoned "USA Wrestling" -- were greeted at the airport in the southern city of Bandar Abbas by local officials and young girls in traditional Iranian dresses, who handed them bouquets of white and pink flowers.

The wrestlers are to participate today and tomorrow in the Persian Gulf Cup, the top wrestling tournament in Iran, where the sport has been a national obsession for centuries.

In a small -- but, for Iranians, significant -- goodwill gesture, the US wrestlers were exempted from having their fingerprints taken as they entered the country. Iran imposed the fingerprint requirement on Americans after the US imposed a similar rule on visiting Iranians. In 2003, Iran boycotted the world freestyle wrestling championships in New York because of the US policy, seen as humiliating.

It is the first time that Americans have participated in the competition since hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, further souring already bad relations between Tehran and Washington.

Despite the courteous welcome, it was clear the Iranian government was not touting the Americans' visit as an attempt to bridge the nations' divides -- unlike Ahmadinejad's predecessor, reformist President Mahmoud Khatami.

Iranian media gave low-key coverage of the wrestlers Tuesday, with government-run newspapers, radio and television mentioning their arrival, but making no real commentary.

Khatami, who was president from 1997 to 2005, encouraged cultural and athletic exchanges with the US to bring down the "wall of mistrust" between the two nations.

In 1998, a US wrestling team became the first US sports team to visit Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, when it participated in the same Persian Gulf Cup. Their arrival was eagerly awaited by the public, and during that year's tournament, some 12,000 wrestling fans in Tehran erupted in applause as an American wrestler waved the Iranian flag after winning a silver medal.

US teams also participated in Iranian wrestling tournaments from 2000 to 2004, and Iran sent teams to various sports competitions in the US

The US wrestling team due to participate in this week's matches includes last year's World silver medalist Mike Zadick and 2005 US World team member Andy Hrovat. The Persian Gulf Cup, also known as the Takhti Cup, will bring together teams from Iran and several other nations, most from Central Asia.

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