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Sharing the Floor

by NERI ZILBER in New York

31 Aug 2010 23:334 Comments

U.S.-Iran basketball game provides opportunity to ease tensions.

568392_orig.jpg[ comment ] Compared to its bigger and more popular footballing cousin held earlier this summer in South Africa, the FIBA basketball world championships that tipped off this past weekend in Turkey come almost as an afterthought. Team USA, the perennial favorites, are sporting a new and younger look, and some of the best players from the other international powerhouses -- Spain, Germany, and Argentina, to name a few -- are sitting out. Yet this tournament shouldn't be the sole purview of basketball obsessives and those of us hoping to catch a glimpse of Spanish wunderkind Ricky Rubio.

With the U.S.-Iran matchup tomorrow (Wednesday, 12 p.m. EST), the tournament has a broader geopolitical dimension that has been overlooked in these last days of summer. If "serious sport," as George Orwell once said, "is war minus the shooting," then any matchup between two ostensibly hostile states on the playing field, and not the killing field, should be welcomed as progress and an opportunity for a thawing of relations.

This, at least, was the hope the last time these two countries faced each other on such a prominent sporting stage. During the 1998 World Cup in France, the Iranian and American men's soccer teams met for what one popular soccer website called "the most politically charged game in World Cup history." Two decades of animosity leading up to the match were somewhat undone by handshakes, flowers, and a joint team picture, and the Iranians came out victorious, 2-1, against a historically weak American side. The match had even more significant implications in the political arena. The late 1990s were the start of the "Tehran Spring" under the presidency of Mohammed Khatami, a time of liberal ascendancy in Iran and the concomitant hope for improved, more normal relations with the West. Like the "ping-pong diplomacy" between the United States and China in the 1970s, the belief was that soccer and sport generally would aid in the rapprochement.

Fast forward 12 years, and the apparent naiveté behind this thinking is as hard to defend as American basketball star Kevin Durant. Needless to say, relations between Tehran and Washington have only grown worse over the past decade, with the threat of war over Iran's nuclear program now being bandied about earnestly by the world's foreign policy cognoscenti. Khatami and his fellow Reformists have been marginalized, if not imprisoned; the brutal suppression of last year's Green Movement was just the most public manifestation of the hardliners' takeover of the Iranian regime.

In this context, with life-and-death implications to every shift in policy, the triviality of sport sometimes come to the fore. Indeed, the deterioration in relations has come about despite the fact that Iranians and Americans athletes do meet fairly regularly. The point is not that sport has the capacity to fundamentally alter politics, but that politics can be influenced on the margins -- and for the better -- by a properly harnessed sporting event. After all, symbolism and public perceptions do exert a strong impact on politics, and there is arguably nothing more symbolic and public than grown men playing a game as they are watched by millions all across the world.

The case of the South African rugby team after the end of apartheid is a well-known instance of the power that national sports teams can have in uniting a country. In more recent times, and on a much smaller scale, was Spain's recent victory in the soccer World Cup. At the final whistle, Spaniards from Madrid to Barcelona to Bilbao emptied out onto the streets as one wine-soaked nation, delirious in the glory that their heroes -- Castillians, Catalans, Basques, and others -- brought to the country as a whole.

In the Middle East, as with much else, politics would appear to roundly trump sports. Iran, like other states in the region, consistently boycotts Israeli athletes, forcing many Israeli teams to compete in Europe. Recently, an Iranian competitor withdrew from a Youth Summer Olympic taekwondo match so as not to have to fight an Israeli in the final. This is political reality, to be sure, but one cannot help but feel a twinge of sadness at the ridiculousness of it all. It's clear, too, that Israel's alienation athletically from its own region only underscores its broader political isolation.

Indeed, it is an irony of the contemporary Middle East that an Arab Israeli, Walid Badir, is captaining the Israeli soccer champions, Hapoel Tel Aviv, in this year's prestigious European Champions League. At the risk of exaggeration, Badir himself has arguably done more for the cause of Jewish-Arab coexistence in his country than any number of politicians, who often only make matters worse.

And so we return to Iran and the United States, and tomorrow's basketball game. In contrast to 1998, there is zero expectation that sport will have a healing effect on relations between the two states this time around. But it doesn't mean that the opportunity to promote better relations isn't still there.

As Iranians watch an American basketball player, it might force them to wonder what all the fuss about the "Great Satan" is really about. When an American watches the Iranian basketball team in action, it at least puts this abstract Middle Eastern country -- and next potential military target -- in some kind of personal context. After all, that is the true majesty of sport: that no matter where in the world one goes, the language is the same, as is the appreciation for athletic achievement, reminding us all of our shared humanity.

Neri Zilber is a writer on international politics based in New York City.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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"As Iranians watch an American basketball player, it might force them to wonder what all the fuss about the "Great Satan" is really about."

What r u talking about ?!!! No Iranians think USA is the "GREAT SATAN";we all know Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are the Devil. U can take driving exam in California in Farsi. Most Iranians have a relative living in USA. But maybe those FOXnews and Glenn Beck lovers want to watch this game and start to think Iranians also do things like sports as well.

Amin / September 1, 2010 11:29 AM

Amin's comment captures my sentiments exactlty. This was a very weird article.

Cy / September 1, 2010 9:01 PM

FYI, NBA is very popular in Iran. It would not be the first time that "Iranians watch an American basketball player". This is aside form the fact that there are American basketball players who play their sport in Iran!

Kia / September 2, 2010 1:24 AM

This tournament is an afterthought only in the US. for you americans college football is more important than technically the biggest stage of the worlds second most popular sport. Even when it was in Indianapolis 8 years ago. Nobody in this country cared about this tournament. you should go back to your suburban gasoline consuming lifestyles and leave the international sports to the rest of the world.

Boss / September 3, 2010 2:52 AM