An Iranian-American chess grandmaster is urging fellow players in his native Iran to consider competing under the neutral flag of the game's global governing body if it suspends their national chess federation next month for pressuring them to boycott Israelis.
In a November 13 interview with VOA Persian, North Carolina-based Elshan Moradi said the most important priority for aspiring chess masters in Iran should be finding a way to continue involvement in international competition independently of the Iran Chess Federation.
The International Chess Federation, known as FIDE, is set to consider a resolution at a December 6 meeting to suspend the Iranian federation unless it publicly approves of Iranian players facing competitors from Israel, Tehran's regional foe.
British grandmaster and FIDE vice president Nigel Short told VOA last week that he tabled the resolution in response to what he said was a pattern of Iranian officials pressuring their chess players to boycott Israelis in recent years in violation of FIDE rules.
Iran's Islamist rulers have called on Iranian athletes to avoid competing against Israelis for decades and have lauded athletes who withdrew from such competition as heroes.
In a letter sent to FIDE in June, Iran Chess Federation acting president Farhad Nikoukhesal asserted that Iranian players make their own decisions about whom to compete against, without any direction from his organization. But in recent years, multiple Iranian players have told international news outlets that they withdrew from overseas games with Israelis for fear of punishment back home for violating Tehran's longstanding sports boycott of the Jewish state.
Moradi is one such player. Speaking to VOA, the 35-year-old Tehran native said he refused to play an Israeli opponent at a tournament in Germany in 2005, fearing what would happen to him in Iran if he went ahead with the game. He said he informed the tournament organizer of his situation at the time and apologized.
Moradi said he believes there is little chance of Iran changing its Israel boycott policy and the risk of its imminent suspension from international chess competition is serious.
"I hope that by taking action to keep politics out of sport, FIDE will open its door to all those who want to play chess without politics," Moradi said.
Several Iranian chess masters have quit their national federation since 2017 and received permission to play for other nations or for FIDE itself, to help them avoid the pressure of honoring Iran's Israel boycott. The most prominent of those players is Iranian teen chess prodigy Alireza Firouzja, who forfeited an overseas game with an Israeli in April 2019, before entering a Moscow tournament in December under the FIDE flag.
FIDE vice president Short previously told VOA that Firouzja agreed to abide by FIDE statutes requiring the Iranian to accept pairings with opponents of any background. Short said other Iranian players also would be welcome to compete under the FIDE flag if they do the same.
Moradi switched his competitive affiliation to the U.S. in 2017, five years after relocating to the country from Iran.
He said he believes more talented Iranian chess players will "run away" from their national federation if FIDE keeps the door open.
Moradi also said a suspension of Iran from international chess competition is unlikely to cause much damage to the game nationally.
"Thanks to the internet, other resources and the Iranian people's love of chess, this game will flourish in all segments of society, with or without the national federation," Moradi said.