News / Middle East

Column: Religion, Sports Exchanges Bring Iranians and Americans Closer

FILE - An Iranian wrestler warms up beside an American flag before his match during the 2009 Takhti Free Style Wrestling Tournament in Tehran.
FILE - An Iranian wrestler warms up beside an American flag before his match during the 2009 Takhti Free Style Wrestling Tournament in Tehran.

While U.S. and Iranian negotiators labor to reach a long-term nuclear agreement, other Americans and Iranians are stepping up contacts in a new wave of people-to-people diplomacy.

In recent months, three American religious delegations have visited Iran while the first group of female Iranian seminary students came to the United States.

Sports exchanges are also on the rise again, spearheaded by American wrestlers who find far more numerous and passionate fans in Iran than in many countries, including the U.S.  

Robby Smith, 27, of San Ramon, California, said he has been part of the U.S. team since he was 18 and wrestling since he was 4 but never experienced the welcome and popular interest he did in Iran in May. People stopped him on the street to have their pictures taken with him, shopkeepers gave him gifts and fans chanted “USA! USA!” when he was competing in the Greco-Roman wrestling world cup.

“It took me six minutes to become a hero in Iran” after years of relative obscurity in the U.S., he told VOA. “I felt like a Beatle…This is something I will always remember my whole entire life and the Iranian people gave that to me.”

National obsession

Wrestling occupies a special place in Iran where it is second only to soccer as a national obsession. Other sports are popular too, such as volleyball; Iran’s national team will be coming to southern California next month to take part in four matches against the U.S. team. Organizers hope this sort of competition will help humanize Iranians for an American public that, to the extent it thinks about Iran at all, regards the country as a member of an “axis of evil” that supports terrorism, wants nuclear weapons and opposes Israel.

This is the second big wave of people-to-people diplomacy with Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The first came after the election of Mohammad Khatami as Iran’s president in 1997. Khatami called for a “dialogue of civilizations” and exchanges of academics, artists and athletes to break down what he called the “bulky wall of mistrust” between the U.S. and Iran.

American wrestlers were in the vanguard then, too, competing in a major competition in Tehran in February 1998. This reporter witnessed the scene as Iranian fans cheered as much or more for the Americans as they did for their own athletes. The American flag – often burned in demonstrations in Iran – flew unmolested in Azadi stadium. Other exchanges followed, engaging experts in education, health, astronomy, philosophy and theology, the environment and cinema.


Hopes that these contacts would pave the way for normalized diplomatic relations faded, however, as Iranian hardliners undermined Khatami and the George W. Bush administration demonized Iran after profiting from its assistance in overthrowing the Taliban and forming a new government for Afghanistan in 2001. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq added new complications.

The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Khatami’s successor in 2005 and especially Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009 further dampened prospects for improved U.S.-Iran relations and made it more difficult for Americans to get visas to visit Iran. With the election last year of Hassan Rouhani as president, however, the chances for a nuclear deal and overall détente with Iran have improved.  The Rouhani government has made it clear that it welcomes private Americans and has facilitated visas for the recent delegations.

Since clerics are so influential in Iran – the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is a Shiite Muslim cleric as our many of its other top officials – interfaith dialogue is a logical means of increasing U.S.-Iran understanding. Among the U.S. groups that have visited Iran this year has been a delegation of Roman Catholic Bishops, two dozen Mennonites and an eight-member multi-faith group that included a spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama, Florida mega-church pastor Joel Hunter.

The Roman Catholics drafted a joint declaration against the “production, stockpiling, use and threat to use weapons of mass destruction” that was signed by Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, retired Washington, D.C. archbishop Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and two senior Iranian ayatollahs. The declaration was meant to formalize a “fatwa” or religious ruling by Khamenei against nuclear weapons.

McCarrick, speaking Thursday in Washington at a panel organized by the Middle East Institute, said the bishops spent much of their visit in March discussing “what a fatwa really is.” Despite skepticism by some outside Iran about the validity of the ruling, McCarrick said, “We found the fatwa of the Supreme Leader was very important – a document which had to be obeyed religiously.” The retired archbishop compared it to a papal declaration directed to the world’s Roman Catholics.

Ayatollah Ahmad Iravani, an Iranian-trained theologian who teaches at Catholic University and runs the non-profit Center for the Study of Islam and the Middle East, which promotes interfaith understanding, said the fatwa should also be considered an edict of the state, given Khamenei’s temporal position.

Critics of Iran often allege that people-to-people diplomacy is a kind of public relations stunt and that the Iranian government is using Americans of good will to distract attention from objectionable Iranian policies. Others note that the portions of the Iranian government that make decisions on the most sensitive issues regarding national security are not the ones taking part in such exchanges.

Iravani admitted that “we have limitations” and that there are “many areas outside our power and information.” But he said that people-to-people ties can help overcome misunderstanding and produce cooperation on projects of mutual benefit such as the environment.

McCarrick, meanwhile, said it would be more naïve for people not to try to make a difference.

 “The only thing certain is that God loves us,” McCarrick said. “This is a new moment [in U.S.-Iran relations] and if we don’t seize it, we may never find it again.”

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

You May Like

Multimedia Brussels Schools, Metro Reopen Under Heavy Guard

City remains under the highest threat alert level due to what authorities have described as a 'serious and imminent' threat of attack

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

Americans Think About Strange Stuff at Thanksgiving

Millions of Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving, but they’re not necessarily thinking about turkey and stuffing

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs