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U.S. Badminton player Eva Lee

Iran Turns Away US Badminton Team on Goodwill Trip

February 05, 2009 11:26 AM
by Denis Cummings
Iran rejected the visas of the U.S. women’s badminton team, which was scheduled to play in an Iranian tournament as part of a goodwill program.

Iran Rejects Visas of American Badminton Players

The U.S. Department of State sent a team of eight female badminton players to Iran as part of a goodwill program designed to improve relations between the two countries. The players were scheduled to enter Iran on Wednesday, but Iranian officials denied their visas.

A spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry said that there was a “lack of enough time to process” the visas, but no other explanation was given. “More likely is that the eight players along with four coaches and managers were blocked by infighting among Iran’s political rivals about the public strategy towards the US,” writes The Independent.

The team, which arrived in Dubai Tuesday, is returning home. The administration of President Barack Obama, who has made it clear that he wants to improve diplomatic relations with Iran, expressed disappointment Wednesday.

“It’s not a good sign,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters. “You know, as the secretary and others have said, when the Iranians unclench that fist, there will be a hand waiting to greet them.”

Historical Context: U.S. sports diplomacy

The event was part of the “people-to-people” exchange with Iran put in place by George W. Bush’s administration in 2006. “In the past two years, over 250 Iranians, including artists, athletes, and medical professionals, have participated in exchange programs in the United States,” the State Department said in a statement.

America has hosted Iranian water polo, weightlifting, table tennis and basketball teams. The Iranian Olympic men’s basketball team traveled to Utah this past summer to play scrimmages against the summer league teams of the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks.

One U.S. team, a men’s wrestling team, has traveled to Iran, competing in Iran’s Takhti Cup in January 2007 . The team was cheered by Iranian fans and treated well throughout the trip. “The wrestlers embraced their role as sports ambassadors and felt that their visit had created a bridge of understanding with the Iranian people,” said a State Department release.

The United States has used sports to improve diplomatic relations many times in the past, most famously in a 1971 trip by American pingpong players to China. The event, which became known as “pingpong diplomacy,” helped thaw relations between the two countries and clear the way for President Richard Nixon to visit China in February 1972.

The Bush administration used sports diplomacy with not only Iran but also its fellow member in the Axis of Evil, North Korea. A North Korean tae kwon do team performed across the United States in October 2007 in an attempt to be “an icebreaker … toward gradual rapprochement,” according to Peterson Institute of International Economics fellow Marcus Noland.

Background: U.S. relations with Iran

The United States cut diplomatic ties during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979–1981 and they have yet to be restored.

President Obama is looking to improve relations with Iran and with the Muslim world in general. In his first television interview as president, given to Arabic-language channel Al Arabiya, Obama said that he would be willing to talk to Iran to discuss “potential avenues for progress.” He said, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.”

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