The Iranian government is refusing to issue visas to the American women's badminton team, in a sign that fresh tensions are scuttling attempts to use sports diplomacy for some sort of political rapprochement.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hasan Qashqavi, said the women's team will not "participate in [a weekend] competition", due to a "lack of time" to process its visas.
The team's trip was sponsored by the U.S. State Department, which has supported a program of people-to-people exchanges with Iran since 2006. It was the first such U.S.-Iranian exchange under the Obama administration.
The 12-member team was reportedly invited by the Iranian Badminton Federation. The State Department indicated, Monday, that it planned to invite Iran's national team to the United States in July.
Badminton's two hurdles
Iran expert Ali Nourizadeh thinks there are two issues complicating the trip, one of them a prior U.S. refusal to issue visas to an Iranian national team.
"The [women's] team would have had lots of difficulties in Iran. First of all ... they could not allow men to participate or watch it, because the American ladies would have the dress code for the sport which is different from what they have in mind ... Second of all, because an Iranian team was not allowed to go to [the] United States, they wanted to respond: if you do not allow our sportsmen and women to get to USA, then we do the same," he said.
Previous sports exchanges between the United States and Iran have involved weightlifters, wrestlers, basketball, water polo and table-tennis players. Thirty-two U.S. athletes have gone to Iran under the State Department program, and 75 Iranian athletes have visited the United States.
Months of tensions between Iran and the West over Iran's nuclear program, which the United States said has military purposes, have derailed attempts at easing tension with Tehran.
The bad relations game
Nourizadeh said the Iranian regime is using bad relations with Washington to drum up support for itself, internally.
"President Obama put the regime in a very delicate and difficult position because the Iranian people, they look forward to have rapprochement with the United States," he said. "They believe in Obama's messages and they are expecting the Iranian regime to change its policy and its behavior. The Iranian regime does not want to do that. The animosity towards the United States helped the regime up till now. Why should they change."
Nourizadeh said a personal enmity by Iran's Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei toward the United States is the cause of bad relations.
"Ayatollah Khamenei believes the American presence in any countries brings evil and bad things to that country," he said. "So, it is better not to have any kind of relation. But, because the regime knows they are in a weak position and they need to bring down the temperature in Washington and other European countries, they may play this game of 'Well, we are ready if you change your policy towards us, we will change.' But, as far as Ayatollah Khamenei stays there as spiritual leader, there will not be a real rapprochement between the United States and Iran."
Nourizadeh is optimistic for the long term, because he believes that Ayatollah Khamenei's health is failing and a new leadership in Iran may be imminent.