Undated image of Iranian chess prodigy Alireza Firouzja, who won the Iranian Chess Championship at age 12 and earned the grandmaster title at the age of 14. (Courtesy photo)
Undated image of Iranian chess prodigy Alireza Firouzja, who won the Iranian Chess Championship at age 12 and earned the grandmaster title at age 14.

Iran risks being suspended from international chess tournaments beginning next month unless it publicly approves of Iranian players facing competitors from Tehran’s regional foe, Israel, according to a senior member of the game’s global governing body.

In a Tuesday interview with VOA Persian from his home in Athens, Greece, Nigel Short, International Chess Federation (FIDE) vice president and a British grandmaster, said Iran would be suspended if the body’s general assembly passed a resolution that he introduced on November 8 and the Islamist-ruled nation did not change its position on competition with Israelis.

“Iran would be suspended until we get some guarantees that this thing will not happen again,” Short said, in reference to his assertion that Tehran regularly has violated FIDE rules in recent years by pressuring its chess players to avoid facing Israelis in global tournaments.

“This motion has not been passed yet, and I wouldn't like to predict what the General Assembly will do [in its December 6 meeting],” Short said. “But it may well be passed.”

Nigel Short Interview With VOA Persian

Farhad Nikoukhesal, acting president of the Iran Chess Federation, dismissed Short’s threat.

"Iran is one of the most influential countries in world chess and I do not think we will be suspended,” Nikoukhesal was quoted as saying in a November 10 article published by state-approved news site Tasnim. “We must act according to our own cultural principles and conditions.”

Short said that, until recent years, Tehran had taken advantage of what he called an unwritten, unofficial FIDE policy of "deliberately avoiding” any tournament pairings of Israelis with players from Iran or other countries hostile toward the Jewish state.

'Blind' pairings'

But since 2018, a FIDE committee led by Arkady Dvorkovich, the body’s president and former Russian deputy prime minister, has insisted that all pairings be “blind,” according to chess24.com, a website offering coverage of global chess tournaments and news. 

“We think sports should be blind, like justice,” Short told VOA. “You should play your games regardless of your opponents’ backgrounds. We have a strict policy of nondiscrimination.”

In an article published November 8, chess24.com said FIDE’s increased emphasis on nondiscriminant pairings in recent years has put Iranian players in awkward situations.

It said Iranian players Parham Maghsoodloo and Amin Tabatabaei were paired with and competed against Israelis at a Spanish tournament in December 2019 and faced reprimands from Iranian authorities after returning home.

Another Iranian, Aryan Gholami, refused to play an Israeli in Sweden in January 2019 and forfeited his place in the tournament, telling Swedish website schack.se that he feared “severe consequences” for competing against the Israeli.

A month later, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met Gholami and praised his action by kissing him on the forehead.

Iranian teenage chess prodigy Alireza Firouzja also forfeited a game against an Israeli in Germany in April 2019.

'Ugly statements'

Short accused Iran of making “ugly statements” and generating “political capital” by having players boycott Israelis.

FIDE's Dvorkovich sent a letter to the Iran Chess Federation’s Nikoukhesal in June calling on him to “confirm in writing” Iran’s position on allowing Iranian players to compete against Israelis in accordance with FIDE rules.

FILE - Iranian men play chess in a street in Tehran, Feb. 23, 2016.

In July, FIDE published Dvorkovich’s letter and Nikoukhesal’s reply. Nikoukhesal asserted that Iranian players make their own decisions about whom to compete against, without his organization rendering “any advisory opinion.”

“Iran does not answer our questions directly,” Short said. “The Iranians just say, ‘We follow FIDE statutes,’ but clearly they do not.”

Chess24.com said Iranian government pressure on players to boycott Israel has led several of them to defect, with Firouzja, who currently resides with his father in France, being the most prominent.

Moscow competition

After forfeiting his game with the Israeli player in April 2019, Firouzja entered the 2019 World Rapid & Blitz Chess Championship in Moscow, where he won a silver medal competing under the FIDE flag.

Short cited Firouzja’s success as evidence that FIDE is not punishing Iranian players by increasing pressure on the Iran Chess Federation to change its practices.

“We made it very clear, if Firouzja wants to play for FIDE, then he has to abide by the FIDE rules,” Short said. “If other Iranian players also are prepared to say they will follow FIDE statutes and compete against players from wherever, then we will be glad to facilitate and welcome them as well.”

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. Click here for the original Persian version of the story.