Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Wrestlers Help Forge U.S.-Iran Friendship

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Wrestlers Help Forge U.S.-Iran Friendship

Article excerpt

In May 2014, Kiki Kelley, an American woman dressed in red, white and blue, entered a packed Tehran arena holding a sign that read "USA." Upon seeing her enter, the all-male crowd became vocal. They stood up from their seats, raised their hands and began...to cheer. Yes, clap and cheer. In the midst of tense nuclear negotiations between their country and the U.S., the Iranian crowd was elated to welcome team USA to Tehran to compete in the World Cup for Greco-Roman wrestling.

"The crowd was going crazy, as if the two countries had never broken relations," recalled Bahman Baktiari, executive director of the International Foundation for Civil Society, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit that helped bring the American wrestlers to Iran.

Such a scene may seem unprecedented, but it's actually not atypical. A similar script played out in 1998 when U.S. wrestlers returned to Iran for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. On that occasion, too, the Iranian crowd provided the American wrestling team with an overwhelmingly friendly welcome.

Since then, U.S. teams have traveled to Iran roughly 14 times, and by all accounts they've had tremendously positive experiences.

"I've been to over 30 countries with teams, and Tehran is in the top two or three cities that I've been to. Just fabulous in far as the embracing that they do to you, the culture, just totally the opposite of what you'd think," said James Ravannack, president of USA Wrestling, at a Feb. 2 Atlantic Council event on "wrestling diplomacy."

Ravannack's statement would likely shock many Americans. It certainly surprised his family. "Calling my wife, she said, 'how bad is it?'" he recalled. "I said, bad? We're having a great time, not bad at all."

Kiki Kelley, team leader of USA Wrestling's Men's Greco-Roman team, was nervous about how Iranians would respond to her prominent role in a male-dominated sport. While her presence at the event had to be negotiated with Iranian officials, she received nothing but warmth from the Iranian people. In fact, the Iranians ended up loving Kelley so much that they invited her to stay in the country for an additional six days and, per custom, lavished her with gifts. "I came back with three extra suitcases," she said.

Kelley credits the warm response she received to the respect she demonstrated for Iranian culture. For instance, she made sure to dress very conservatively upon her arrival, even though many Iranian women have liberal interpretations of their country's dress code. At one point, a group of young Iranians even pulled Kelley aside to ask her a pressing question: "why are you dressed so conservatively?" Kelley's respect, however, did not go unappreciated, and even earned her this headline in Iranian newspapers: "Modest American Woman Team Leader to Attend World Cup."

Having a respectful attitude helped facilitate numerous jovial and lighthearted moments with Iranians, Kelley said. "We started to get to know people, and realized they love 'Seinfeld,' they love laughing, and they loved being around us," she recalled. "Everyone would volunteer to be with us."

In addition to her positive embrace with Iranian culture, Kelley also enjoyed the business side of her trip. Wrestling is more than just a sport in Iran-it is a source of national pride. Wrestling has been practiced in Iran since ancient times, and it's safe to say that the Persians have mastered the sport. …

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