Sports Diplomacy Between the US and Iran

by Kevin Jon Heller

This is a fascinating story: the State Department, the Iranian government, and the NBA have joined forces to arrange for the Iranian men’s basketball team to train and play next week against NBA teams in Salt Lake City:

Iran will take part in the Rocky Mountain Revue, the Utah-hosted summer league and will play four games. The team will also observe NBA team practices and talk to players and coaches about basketball.

"In an increasingly turbulent world, it is rewarding to bring people together to celebrate teamwork, discipline and respectful competition on the court," NBA commissioner David Stern said in a statement. "The NBA embraces the opportunity to welcome the Basketball Federation of Iran and the Iranian Olympic team in a demonstration of how something as simple as a game of basketball can promote understanding."

Iran will play two games against the NBA D-League Ambassadors, a team consisting of 10 players who competed in the developmental league last season, on July 17 and July 20 at The Factory — the Utah Flash’s practice facility. Iran will also face a Dallas Mavericks team on July 19 and a Utah Jazz squad on July 21, with both games at Salt Lake Community College.

The arrangement obviously has political implications, given the tension between the US and Iranian governments.  In fact, it seems that the decision to send the Iranian team represents something of a victory for the moderates in Tehran:

U.S. officials believe that the request came from the highest levels in Iran, and is part of an attempt by Iran to tamp down tensions between the two countries. In fact, Iranian officials told NBC News that hardliners in the Islamic Republic opposed the overture. But moderates in the Iranian government prevailed. The Iranian officials said that moderates in the government have been trying to set something like this up for two years. Iranian officials add that the basketball team is already in the U.S. training for the games.

I am all for "sports diplomacy" of this kind, especially when formal diplomatic relations are marked by such open hostility.  I find it remarkable, though, how easily the two can co-exist — American basketball players have been playing in Iran for years, even on teams that are sponsored by the Iranian Ministry of Defence!  (For a great interview with one of the Americans playing in Iran, see here.)

The American teams are going to destroy the Iranian team — which is, I hope, the only way Americans will kill Iranians any time in the near future.

POST-SCRIPT: I am, of course, on record as being opposed to holding the Olympics in China.  That kind of sports diplomacy, I think, is very different: the Iranian basketball team playing in the US allows moderates in both governments to quietly strengthen ties between them, while the Beijing Olympics are simply a two-week-long free infomercial for the horrific Chinese government.

http://opiniojuris.org/2008/07/16/iran-us-sports-diplomacy/

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