August 29, 2019 | Policy Brief

Iranian Intelligence Forces Judo Ace to Dodge Israeli Opponent

August 29, 2019 | Policy Brief

Iranian Intelligence Forces Judo Ace to Dodge Israeli Opponent

Iranian intelligence officials coerced judoka Saied Mollaei into deliberately losing his semifinal match on Wednesday to avoid facing an Israeli opponent in the final, according to Israel Judo Association Chairman Moshe Ponte. By reverting to such actions, Iran broke its May 2019 promise to honor the non-discrimination principle of the Olympic Charter.

The Islamic Republic sent Mollaei to the Tokyo World Judo Championships despite reports that Iran would refuse to send any athletes. Ponte said that Mollaei intended to compete normally, but Iranian intelligence officials appeared at Mollaei’s home in Iran and at the arena to intimidate the athlete and his family. The French website RMC Sport also indicated that Mollaei threw the match to protect his family. Mollaei lost the next round as well, ensuring he would not share a podium with the Israeli victor.

In May, Seyed Reza Salehi Amiri, the head of Iran’s National Olympic Committee, and Arash Miresmaeili, the president of the Iranian Judo Federation, published a letter in which they promised to “fully respect the Olympic Charter and its non-discrimination principle.” The International Judo Federation (IJF) hailed Iran’s newfound commitment to sportsmanship.

However, Amiri declared in July that Iranian athletes would not face Israelis. Amiri claims to have explained to IJF president Marius Vizer, “Refraining from participating in competitions with athletes of the Zionist regime is an issue of the Muslim world, and athletes from 20 countries refrain from doing so. I said that we are acting within the framework of the Iranian regime’s policy – and for this reason, we are not competing with athletes of the Zionist regime.”

Iran has boycotted Israeli athletes for 35 years. In judo, Iranian athletes have suffered mysterious injuries, failed their weigh-ins, and thrown matches to avoid facing Israelis. For instance, in February 2019, Mollaei intentionally lost at the Paris Grand Slam because his next opponent would have been Israeli. Mollaei went on to win the bronze medal, but chose to feign an injury to avoid standing on the podium with his Israeli counterpart.

Iranian athletes’ resistance to competing with Israelis stems in part from domestic pressure. In 2004, Miresmaeili, then a judoka, disqualified himself after finding out he was to face an Israeli opponent. Miresmaeili received a hero’s welcome and a cash prize of $125,000 upon returning to Iran. The Islamic Republic has also used threats to keep athletes in line, as it apparently did most recently with Mollaei. In 2018, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Basij paramilitary threatened any athlete competing against an Israeli: “We will break their legs.”

General Davoud Azarnoush, commander of the Iranian Basiji Athletes Organization, struck a more optimistic tone, emphasizing his interest in seeing Iranian athletes compete freely: “I hope Israel will be wiped out and annihilated before the next Olympic Games, and all of us will breathe a sigh of relief.”

The IJF and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should impose stiff penalties on Iran until it complies with anti-discrimination clauses and fulfills its obligations under the Olympic commitment to fair play. The IJF should exclude Iranian athletes until Iran stops its athletic boycott of the Jewish state, and the IOC should likewise bar Iran from participating in the 2020 Olympics. Relentless enforcement of anti-discrimination regulations is the most effective way to counter this affront to sportsmanship.

David May is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow David on Twitter @DavidSamuelMay. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD.


Iran Iran Politics and Economy