June 22, 1998
Iran knocked the U.S. out of contention in the World Cup Sunday in a dramatic game that ended 2-1. The match started with gestures of good will on both sides. After this background report, Margaret Warner talks to a panel about the prospects of warming relations between Iran and the U.S.
KWAME HOLMAN: Last night's match-up was determined by random draw. Soccer teams from Iran and the United States--countries that have hurled invective at each other for nearly two decades--would face off on a French football field in World Cup competition.
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Before the match, Iran's starting players handed their U.S. counterparts white flowers-- a symbol of peace. In turn, the Americans gave the Iranian athletes pennants from the U.S. Soccer Federation. The teams then broke tradition and posed for a group picture.
The game was expected to be an easy victory for the Americans, who were more experienced and higher-ranked. But it turned into a series of American mistakes and missed opportunities. The Iranians scored once in the first half and again in the second, to end up with a 2-1 victory.
Bitter enemies since 1979.
The football rival nations once were allies in the Persian Gulf. They have been bitter enemies since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 forced out the pro-American shah and brought in the Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and a fundamentalist theocracy. The U.S. and Iran have had no diplomatic relations since the end of 1979, when Khomeni's supporters seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held American diplomats hostage there for more than a year. But over the last year, there have been signs of change. The first came in may of last year with the election of Mohammed Khatami, a cleric who pledged to modernize Iran as its president. He won a landslide election, chiefly with the votes of young people, who constitute the largest segment of Iran's population of 67 million. Six months ago, Khatami urged better relations--at least on the person-to-person level.
PRES. MOHAMMAD KHATAMI: Without revolution, we are experiencing a new phase of reconstruction of civilization. We feel that what we seek is what the founders of the American civilization were also pursuing four centuries ago. This is why we sense an intellectual affinity with the essence of the American civilization.
KWAME HOLMAN: But the Iranian president shares power with the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini. The two were together earlier this year at a rally denouncing U.S. intervention in the Middle East. Khameini opposes any diplomatic gestures toward the U.S. Under President Khatami, there has been some easing of the tight restrictions on and surveillance of Iranians. Some of the loosening has been in connection with soccer, a passion in Iran as in most of the world outside the United States.
Soccer as a force of change.
In November, Iran qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 20 years and the country exploded with enthusiasm. The outbursts of public fervor that greeted Iran's progress in qualifying matches brought women onto the streets to join cheering males, an unlikely sight just a few years ago. But women--whose traditional dress covers them from head to foot--aren't allowed inside stadiums to watch soccer games. The most they can hope for is a glimpse from an often-distant rooftop. Nonetheless, Iranian women are devout soccer fans. They wait for autographs, cheer on their country's team, and take advantage of every photo-opportunity.
Overtures of peace.
In the days before Sunday's game, President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright made statements expressing hope the two countries could take more steps to improve relations. And on the day of the game, there were broadcasts of a video made available by the White House in which the president drew an explicit connection between politics and soccer.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: As we cheer today's game between American and Iranian athletes, I hope it can be another step toward ending the estrangement between our nations. I am pleased that over the last year, President Khatami and I have both worked to encourage more people-to-people exchanges, and to help our citizens develop a better understanding of each other's rich civilizations.
KWAME HOLMAN: In Tehran, thousands came onto the streets last night to celebrate enthusiastically but peacefully their team's victory, despite warnings from the government against demonstrations.