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Iran’s ‘Hatred Policy’ Against Israeli Athletes Continues as Chess, Karate and Bodybuilding Contests Skipped

avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a televised speech in Tehran, Iran June 4, 2021. Official Khamenei Website/Handout via REUTERS

An Iranian activist and former world champion lambasted Iran for its longstanding ban on Iranians competing against Israelis, following a recent string of incidents in which the Islamic Republic blocked its athletes from participating in several such sporting events.

Sardar Pashaei — a Greco-Roman wrestling champion and former head coach of Iran’s Greco-Roman wrestling team, who is now an American citizen — told The Algemeiner of “systematic discrimination in Iran against Iranian athletes.”

“In any competition, Iran sacrifices these athletes for this ‘hatred policy,'” he said. “The result is [that] every day, many athletes are leaving the country and applying for asylum to avoid the punishment from Iranian officials.”

At the Nov. 8 Lindores Abbey Blitz chess tournament in Riga, Latvia, officials from Iran forced Iranian chess grandmaster Mohammad Amin Tabatabai to withdraw in the Blitz category to avoid competing against an Israeli chess player. He had gained seven rating points before being forced to pull out of the tournament. Tabatabai was previously forced to forfeit from the 2018 World Junior Chess Championship after seven matches to avoid facing an opponent from Israel.

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A number of athletes in recent years have defected from Iranian national teams and sought asylum outside of their home country, including judoka Saeid Mollaei, who now competes for Mongolia. Some have participated in the Olympics as non-state athletes, such as Iranian taekwondo fighter Kimia Alizadeh, who competed at the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo as part of the Refugee Team.

Iran also pulled out of the 2021 International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB) Asian Championships, held in Beirut, Lebanon, from Nov. 10-14, in response to a number of Iranian athletes recently seeking asylum outside of the country. In an emotional video, an Iranian national bodybuilding champion who was set to compete in the championship cried over the government’s decision.

Iran similarly withdrew from the 2021 Karate World Senior Championships, planned for Nov. 16-21 in Dubai, because five Israeli athletes and two referees from Israel are set to participate, Pashaei said on Sunday. He said Iran is also looking to suspend Iranian referee Elmira Guzelzadeh, who judged a match that involved an Israeli athlete.

In late October, Iranian world kickboxing champion Omid Ahmadisafa had reached the final round of the WAKO Senior and Master World Championship in Italy when he was photographed in a group that included an Israeli athlete. After Iranian security officials saw the picture, they threatened Ahmadisafa’s life. He then fled his hotel in Italy and has since sought asylum in Germany, he confirmed in an interview with the Iranian branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In the same tournament, Ahmadisafa was forced to lose weight to compete in a lower weight class in order to avoid an Israeli opponent, according to Iran International News.

Pashaei is part of the United For Navid campaign, created by a group of Iranian athletes and human rights activists, which has called on bodies the the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to sanction the Islamic Republic over its injustices towards Iranian athletes, including female competitors. The campaign is named after 27-year-old Iranian athlete and national wrestling champion Navid Afkari, who was executed last year for an alleged murder in 2018 during anti-government demonstrations in Iran.

The United For Navid campaign is working to report all of these recent cases to the IOC and “let them know that Iran systematically violating the Olympic charter every day,” Pashaei said.

In a Nov. 10 incident cited by Pashaei, Iranian powerlifting champion, coach and referee Amir Assadollahzadeh fled his hotel in Norway in the middle of the night after being threatened by Iranian security officials for refusing to wear an IPF World Powerlifting Championships uniform bearing the image of the late Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.

In September, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reaffirmed the country’s ban on Iranian athletes facing opponents from Israel, which it does not recognize.

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