Iranian Wrestler Forced to Throw Match to Avoid Wrestling an Israeli
Boundaries between politics and sports blurred on Saturday when Iranian wrestler Ali Reza Karimi threw a match to avoid wrestling an Israeli in the next round. Karimi was on his way to potentially winning the U23 World Senior Wrestling Championship when his coach forced him to lose.
Karimi responded to his involuntary loss by saying, in an interview with the Iranian Students News Agency, “I do accept that Israel is an oppressor and commits crimes. But would it not be oppression if our authorities undermine my hard work again?”
As a country that identifies itself in part as a democracy, Karimi is right to question the government’s suppression of citizen’s rights. According to a 2016/2017 Amnesty International report, Iranian “authorities heavily suppressed the rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and religious belief, arresting and imprisoning peaceful critics and others after grossly unfair trials before Revolutionary Courts.”
Even as the Iranian government oppresses its citizens, there is a mounting nationalist movement on the rise in Iran. Kazem, an Iranian PhD student, said, “I would like to see a regime change in Iran, but I want Iran, ruled by any government even the current clergies, to be stronger than any country in the region including Israel.”
Kazem’s sentiments seem to be held by many urban middle class Iranians, who, in previous years, were either cynical about, or distanced themselves completely from politics. This shift can be attributed to, among other things, President Trump’s election and growing competition with Saudi Arabia.
According to Hamidreza Jalaeipour, a professor of sociology and a leading reformist, pressure from the United States and the threat of Saudi Arabia are creating an “us-against-them atmosphere.” Many Iranians, even those who are secular, now cheer when missiles are tested. State-run television has been promoting a pilgrimage to Iraq, which would show Iran’s national and religious strength.
Although the primary countries implicated in the fight for power between Iran and Saudi Arabia are Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, Israel is at risk of being drawn into a war with Hezbollah. In fact, in the past five years there have been 100 instances of Israel bombing Syrian military sites in response to Iran trying to move materials to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Although a minor instance of the conflict between Israel and Iran, Karimi being forced to throw his match is indicative of the tension between their cultures and ideologies. The fact that political beliefs have permeated even into the realm of sports shows the Iranian government’s control over its citizens, and the danger that the bout of nationalism poses to regional stability.