Soccer and Diplomacy in Iran


RAY SUAREZ: From the sounds of the pro-Iranian crowd to the sights of the ubiquitous red, white, and green flags, it was hard to tell Iran was the visiting team yesterday afternoon in Southern California. In the third match of its soccer diplomacy tour of North America, the Iranian national soccer team took on its U.S. counterpart at the Rose Bowl. The game ended in a 1-1 tie.

The crowd was mostly made up of Iranian Americans, a slice of the nearly one million now living in this country. And amid gestures of goodwill by both teams, the question for many of fans was whether a soccer game would help move the ball forward on improving relations between the two countries.

But so far, soccer has not had that political effect between Iran and the country it calls "The Great Satan." There have been no diplomatic relations since the 1979 hostage crisis. Just two months ago, crowds shouting "Death to America" were on the streets of Tehran to mark the 20th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy by Islamic militants.

There have been some diplomatic overtures of late. The Iranian government led by President Mohammed Khatami, elected in a landslide in 1997, has endorsed expanded personal and cultural ties. But it's been more cautious about resuming diplomatic relations. American officials have made some reciprocal gestures. But as Defense Secretary Cohen said last fall, there are conditions.

WILLIAM COHEN: With respect to Iran, we watch Iran very closely and have indicated that we would like to have a better relationship with Iran, but for this to take place, there must meet at least three conditions. Iran must stop supporting terrorism, it must stop undermining the Middle East peace process, and it must stop trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, the "New York Times" reported that the CIA believes Iran might be able to make a nuclear weapon. Washington has been monitoring the evolution of Iranian politics and society, to see how far President Khatami can advance internal reforms and more personal freedom over the objections of more conservative clerics.

The man President Khatami shares power with, spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini, has officially endorsed Khatami's reform agenda, while opposing diplomatic relations with the U.S.. At the same time, one of the country's most powerful clerical groups, the Council of Guardians, has blocked the candidacy of dozens of pro-Khatami reform candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections next month. For more on U.S.-Iran relations, we get three views.

Robin Wright is a correspondent for the "Los Angeles Times" and the author of the new book "The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran." She was last in Iran in November. Bahman Baktiari is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine. He was last in Iran this past October, and was at the soccer game yesterday. Kenneth Timmerman used to run the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, a nonprofit organization that focused on human rights in Iran.

He is currently a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Maryland. Well, I guess let's start in the most obvious place. Robin Wright, do these games, events like these games matter? Are they important in telling the story of the evolution of the relations of these two countries?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, I think they're critical. I think they offer a chance for both Iranians and Americans to get to know each other again after two decades of hostility. I think they're also a microcosm of the changing mood in both countries.

In the United States, a recent poll showed that 91% of Americans are prepared to allow a dialogue between the United States and Iran and that 80% would actually be prepared to engage in concrete concessions to renew relations with a new moderate president. In Iran, everyone I've interviewed has indicated varying degrees of interest in renewing relations with the United States.

So I think there is for the first time a genuine appetite. But I think it also has to go slowly, just as relations were renewed between China and the United States almost 30 years ago the same way, through ping-pong diplomacy. This is a way for some kind of human contact to pave the way through diplomatic contact.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, the game ended in a tie. But maybe there was some interesting action in the stands. What can you tell us about being there?

BAHMAN BAKTIARI: I think one of the important aspect was that for the first time I saw a huge number of Iranians gathered together, regardless of their political viewpoints. And I think I agree with Robin. Another important aspect of these games is that it's bringing the Iranian community in the United States together. It's a very much unifying theme. They all were cheering for their country. So I could not see but positive results coming out of these games.

RAY SUAREZ: So regardless of affiliation back in the home country? I know the Los Angeles area is home to a large monarchist group. Many of the Jews who left Iran during the revolutionary period settled in Southern California. But once they were inside the Rose Bowl, they were all Iranian?

BAHMAN BAKTIARI: Yes, they were. There were a large number of second-generation Iranians born in this country. I think they are dispelling their identity by participating in these games. And it is the only way they can relate to Iran.

I was very surprised to see the large number of young Iranian men and women who were cheering their heart out for their team. In that way, it brings together a large community of Iranians, I think, in the Los Angeles area. There are about half a million or 600,000, very wealthy, successful running community leer. It brings them together toward their country.

RAY SUAREZ: Kenneth Timmerman, one of the few in this tense dance, one of the few things that's been green-lighted by both sides is this kind of person-to-person diplomacy. Is there a trickle up? Does it inform what people in policy areas are thinking?

KENNETH TIMMERMAN: I think what the message is here is that there's not an enduring hostility between the Iranian people and the American people. And any recent visitor who's come back from Iran, whether it's Robin or anybody else that I've spoken to, certainly will tell you this. The Iranian people love to see Americans. They greet Americans.

They take them to their homes when you go into Iran. That's not the problem. The problem that we have is with the Iranian regime. And the Iranian regime is a problem for the United States and it's also a problem for the Iranian people. This is a regime which continues to assassinate opponents inside Iran. It has a horrible human rights record. Just over this past year they assassinated the heads of some of the opposition groups – Sridhar and others.

They're assassinating writers and poets. They're closing newspapers all the time. They have a miserable human rights record at home, and they're supporting terrorism overseas. That's the problem. It's not the people-to-people problem. There is no problem people to people.

RAY SUAREZ: I'm wondering how much difference, what the United States does or doesn't do in the near term matters in what we see as a time of domestic foment where people are still waiting to see where things fall out. There's a lot of tealeaf reading and people say the United States shouldn't do or should do this. But maybe no matter what we do the events aren't going to be that different in Tehran. Robin?

ROBIN WRIGHT: I think Iran is at a critical transition period. It's trying to become a normal state again. It went through 20 years of really violent turmoil and change — the ending of monarchy, deconstructing the past and reconstructing something new. It's now trying to find a way that will empower people. And there are in effect two very different camps in Iran.

One, reformers who want some form of Islamic democracy, and those who Ken described, who are behind a lot of the viciousness, the violence, the retribution against opposition, who are clinging to the revolutionary image of a state that is extreme, that is locked into kind of an ideology of the past.

And that's what is coming to play next month when Iranians go to the polls to elect a new parliament. And there is a strong belief that if these were free and fair, that the overwhelming majority of Iranians would vote for the kind of reformers who would not only change the domestic status quo, move toward reform and democracy, but also would like to pave the way for renewing relations with the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, can you continue reform and keep the Islamic revolution?

BAHMAN BAKTIARI: I don't see any problem with that. It seems like the Chinese government has kept the experiment alive. I think I disagree with Mr. Timmerman on the question of the Iranian government's change of behavior in the past two years, not being very "drastic."

Even the speech of President Khatami on the CNN interview was truly a landmark. It was the first time an Iranian official had ever mentioned making mistakes during the hostage crisis. And all these are sport activities that we see back and forth as the result of that speech. Also, as Robin mentioned, the forthcoming parliamentary elections in Iran are very important. Iran is not ruled by one person. It is a collectivity.

And as much as the camps are competing with each other for power, they seem to be agreeing on the rules of the game. And one positive aspect of Khatami's presidency has been the fact that more groups are clarifying their political positions. It's very difficult to be a fence-sitter in Iran today. I see distance developing more and more and compartmentalizing itself into much more comprehensive reforms.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Timmerman, your response?

KENNETH TIMMERMAN: Well, one of the problems is there is a foment of democracy in Iran, and this is very positive, but the problem is that the regime is still deciding on who can actually be a candidate. And when they reject candidates who do not accept clerical rule, absolute clerical rule, there really cannot be any democracy.

The problem really comes down to Iran being run today by a small elite of clerics who are imposing their rule on the rest of the people. And that is the dictatorship of the clergy. Now, President Khatami, who is being touted as a reformer, met in Tehran just a month and a-half ago with the head of Lebanon's Hezbollah.

And he stood up and said, "we will continue to support terrorist groups that are opposing the existence of Israel in the middle east as an organized state." I don't think that is a great change of Iranian state policy over what they said ten years ago.

RAY SUAREZ: But no matter who chooses the candidates, aren't some of the results of these elections clearly standing on the shoulders of each subsequent one — the Khatami regime has been very different from the ones before it, and a lot of these local offices are being held in unprecedented numbers by women.

KENNETH TIMMERMAN: Yes. That is a very clear progress in Iran. And don't get me wrong. There is a lot of progress in Iran. But if you want to come back here to U.S. policy, what should the United States do, I will certainly say in my U.S. Senate campaign in Maryland that America needs to be… hold up a beacon of freedom to the world. I think we need to say to the people of Iran that we will support you in your march towards democracy, and we will not legitimize a government which is run by a clerical elite. We will instead try to support you as you try to replace that government or change the structure of that government.

RAY SUAREZ: Robin Wright?

ROBIN WRIGHT: I think there's an extraordinary amount of energy in Iran today pushing for change. And I think the United States has an important role in encouraging that. I think one of the sad things is there was an effort by this administration to make overtures to Iran. President Clinton actually thought that Iran might be his China, meaning…

Referring to President Nixon's opening of the door the China 25 years ago. And the timing was such that there are only a few… Well, you have the rest of this year basically for the Clinton administration, and after the Iranian election in late February, there was some speculation about whether Iran might be able to move closer or do something. It doesn't now look like the administration has decided that that's likely to happen.

Yet there's still I think a sincere interest in trying to see if there are issues on which there is common ground. I know the secretary of state, for example, very much wanted to go to the soccer game in Los Angeles. But her schedule, because she was in Central and Latin America, wouldn't allow it. But the Iranian wrestlers are coming to Washington in a couple of weeks, and I understand that there may be a senior U.S. official visiting those games.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, professor, you just heard Robin Wright talk about the fact there's a year left in the Clinton administration. Are those sorts of timing questions being distilled and sifted for their content in Iran? Are the people in Iran wondering about the next American president and whether to move now or then?

BAHMAN BAKTIARI: I think most of the issues in Iran are decided by domestic politics and foreign policy is not an important issue right now. And the developments in Iran are so fast that within a couple of days you have three or four newspapers emerge, one or two closed again.

And I always give the analogy that one day in Iran is equivalent to a couple months in terms of developments in surrounding countries. So it's a very fast-developing country in terms of its political development. It's a young country, very young. And it is very difficult to manage. President Khatami has learned that just making promises is not enough. And more and more students are much more in a fomented situation. They demand for from him. Women in Iran are very informed, as Robin mentioned.

It's a difficult country to manage. After the parliamentary elections in Iran, they're going to have presidential elections. And somehow the cycles of elections in United States and in Iran somehow does not coincide for any kind of comprehensive negotiations it seems to me.

RAY SUAREZ: That will be the last word. Thank you all for being with us.