Will the FIFA World Cup help bridge the gaps between Iran and the United States?

At a time when tensions between Iran and the West are high and the fate of the 2015 nuclear deal hangs in the balance, an upcoming sporting fixture resembling what pundits call “ping-diplomacy” pong” revitalizes the hope that there are still opportunities to close the gaps. between the two sides.

The draw for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar was announced in early April and Iran, one of four Asian representatives, was lined up to face the United States and England. The fourth team in Group B, dubbed the most politically charged group in the vaunted event, will be chosen in the European qualifiers between Scotland, Ukraine and Wales.

As soon as the draw determined the clashes in the first World Cup hosted by a Middle Eastern country, attention turned to the Iran-USA confrontation, which will be their second meeting in a Cup of the world. In 1998, Iran beat the United States 2-1 in their first showdown when the two teams exchanged flowers and shirts as a sign of cordiality as their governments continued to be at loggerheads.

There have been tectonic ups and downs in the timeline of US-Iranian relations since the highly publicized tournament 24 years ago, including the first direct negotiations between the two states that preceded the signing of the agreement on the Iranian nuclear.

But with former US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018 and his reinstatement of onerous sanctions, as well as subsequent escalations that culminated in the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force , the two rivals are back. back to square one in a vicious circle of bitterness, and the germinating détente has unraveled.

Talks to strike the nuclear deal that could serve as a precursor to improving US-Iranian relations while allaying international concerns about Tehran’s nuclear activities have stalled for more than a month now, and Iranian leaders have once again increased its anti-Western and anti-American rhetoric, which it traditionally doubles down in times of crisis.

Since Tehran and Washington severed diplomatic relations in 1980, scholars, artists, entrepreneurs, journalists and civil society activists have not abandoned the idea of ​​embracing people-to-people exchanges and advocating for Path II of diplomacy. With no American embassy in Tehran, Iran is the 13th largest source country for international students in the United States, represented by over 12,000 students in 2019. The population of Iranian students in America is larger than that of British, Turkish students. and German students.

In 2015, the Institute of International Education (IIE) sent a historic delegation of American academic envoys to Iran, which included scholars from Ball State University, Pitzer College, Rutgers University, of New Jersey State, University of Southern California and Wayne State University, shortly after announcing the opening of its IIE Iran Higher Education Initiative.

Seven years earlier, the Association of American Universities had coordinated a high-level visit to Iran by the presidents of six American universities, including Cornell University and Carnegie Mellon University, to meet with their Iranian counterparts and engage in dialogue on the prospects for university cooperation.

Similar visits of this nature have occurred occasionally, and several prominent American journalists, artists, and scholars have visited Iran, reciprocated by dozens of Iranian celebrities and artists who traveled to the United States to organize exhibitions, give lectures, organize events or participate in festivals. . The sport has also functioned as a springboard for engagement, and bouts in a number of disciplines, particularly wrestling as a favorite activity for Iranians and Americans, have highlighted the potential for both nations to patch up. their ties even when governments fail to see eye to eye.

U.S. national soccer team coach Gregg Berhalter and Iranian Croatian manager Dragan Skocic also declined to comment on the political implications of the next game scheduled for November 29. But the bottom line is that the confrontation may invite the leaders of both countries to start taking a more pragmatic attitude and admit that despite years of accumulated grievances, they can still work towards a future in which they coexist or address some of their differences. .

“I don’t think a game can ease the tensions, because the tensions are long-standing and they emanate from governments of long-standing distrust and disappointment. However, if people can meet on the pitch with respect and maybe share more than one match, I think any human exchange is better than none,” said Persis Karim, President of the Center for Diaspora Studies Iranian and professor of comparative and world literature. Department of San Francisco State University.

Karim believes that even if the two governments are not ready for a lasting dialogue, people are prepared and realize that the costs of not talking are high: “There must be more than sport. People should be allowed to travel, get visas, visit each other, entertain artists and musicians without the constant threat of being cancelled.

“But there are so many legacies of Trump administration policies that continue to impede people-to-people contact beyond sports meets. Sanctions against Iran also contribute to this,” she told Al-Monitor.

Most observers note that the antagonistic rhetoric that the Iranian government peddles to rally the public around the flag of anti-Western sentiments, hit back by corporate media in Europe and the United States portraying Iran in a cynical and negative, makes reconciliation a daunting task. But initiating understanding is not impossible, even in a climate of heightened mistrust and friction.

Iraj Bashiri, a history professor at the University of Minnesota and an expert on Iranian affairs, notes that secret diplomacy and cultural and sports exchanges can create periods of cooperation, but they will be fleeting unless the two countries fundamentally resolve their differences.

“If we place the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar in the context of past Iran-USA and Iran-England interactions, the conclusion we reach, regardless of the degree of coverage and hype, does not can hardly be inspiring,” he said.

“Nevertheless, the same spark that creates animosity has the potential to create mutual understanding and compromise. I tend to favor the latter with the hope that ultimately the constructive efforts of those who work tirelessly, in sports and in other fields, will prevail,” he told Al-Monitor.

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