August 10, 2012 | New York Daily News

Pinning Iran to the Mat

Can we learn lessons about stopping Tehran's nuclear program from a wrestling match? Read more:
August 10, 2012 | New York Daily News

Pinning Iran to the Mat

Can we learn lessons about stopping Tehran's nuclear program from a wrestling match? Read more:

There will be a physical confrontation between Iran and the United States on Friday night. But it’s not in the Strait of Hormuz; it’s in the Olympic Games, on the wrestling mat.

U.S. wrestler Jordan Burroughs will meet Iran’s Sadegh Saeed Goudarzi in the gold medal round of the men’s Freestyle Class 74 kg. (163 lbs.).

Though metaphors can all be strained and Olympic wrestling is a murky area to extract lessons about Iran’s politics, the ancient sport presents some possible clues to stop Iran’s strategic drive to develop nuclear weapons.

Stay with me. As a professional Iran-watcher and former avid wrestler, I see connections.

Journalists and some Iran analysts frequently invoke chess and carpet weaving to characterize Tehran’s bottomless patience to outflank its adversaries at the nuclear talks designed to end its illicit enrichment of weapons grade uranium. The origins of chess can be found in Iran and the country produces some of the most highly complex woven carpets in the world.

The art of grappling is, however, where Iran currently excels.

Hamid Sourian, the 26-year-old Greco-Roman wrestler from Tehran, secured Iran’s first gold medal in 40 years in the 55 kg. (121 lbs.) weight class. “I am happy that I have made the Iranian people happy. Now, I’m thinking about competing in the next Olympics,” Sourian told the state-controlled Tehran Times after his spectacular victory.

Iranian wrestlers have to some extent dominated the Greco Roman form of the sport at the 2012 Games, winning three gold medals. Greco Roman bars holds below the waist and offensive leg attacks. In Freestyle, their dominance has been challenged more frequently. Traditionally, this is where the Americans and Iranians lock horns, as in tonight’s Burroughs vs. Goudarzi match.

And it is worth noting that wrestling remains an area where a high level of admiration between ordinary Iranians and Americans continue to exist.

Indeed, after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 ushered in an anti-American clerical regime, and fiery radicals took U.S. Embassy personnel hostage, Washington severed diplomatic relations with Tehran. Just three years ago, a delegation of U.S. wrestlers competed in Iran. Ali Galvani, an Iranian student and wrestler, told MSNBC at the time, “I am so happy the Americans are here, they are a great team. The only reason I came today was to see them. I hope one day I can travel to America and watch them compete there.”

During the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush exchanges of wrestlers took place in both countries, fostering a kind of sports diplomacy reminiscent of the ping pong diplomacy of Chinese-American relations during the period of President Richard Nixon.

So, what can we learn about nuclear weapons programs through the prism of wrestling? Though wrestling is often associated with martial arts brutality, it is actually a scientific study in how to anticipate your opponent’s behavior and react. Top-caliber wrestling is often marked by an aggressive, methodical patience.

The task for U.S. foreign policy right now is to systematically break Iran’s monopoly of patience.

The U.S. and its Western allies need to draw red lines. As Anthony H. Cordesman, a former director of intelligence assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, noted in his Real Clear World analysis (Aug. 4) titled “Threaten Iran with War to Prevent War”: the “negotiations are not yet making clear progress.” In short, he argues that “Iran needs to know there are real limits to how long it can talk and stall.”

To add to the sense of urgency, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported this week that fresh intelligence data from the U.S., Britain, France and Germany indicate Iran’s nuclear progress is steady and more advanced than previously assessed. Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak confirmed that President Obama received a new National Intelligence Estimate report on Iran moving at a fast pace toward nuclear weaponry.

All of this helps make the case that the West has not thrown a heavy enough wrench into Iran’s timeline process.

It's important to realize: The Islamic Republic does not have unlimited patience. There are telling examples of Iranian political reversals when faced with the dissolution of its regime. As a result of the 2003 U.S. defeat of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party in Iraq, Iran’s regime was filled with anxiety about U.S. intervention. The former President Mohammad Khatami briefly suspended his country’s nuclear weapons program. And the mounting economic costs associated with Iran's eight-year war with Iraq (1980-88) prompted Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini to agree to a cessation of the conflict to avoid the collapse of his nascent Islamic system. He famously declared his capitulation to “drinking a chalice of poison.”

Grappling with Iran’s nuclear program means much more than conducting negotiations for the sake of negotiations. This is about showing Tehran’s leaders that the U.S. and its allies are willing to go to great lengths to pin Iran.

Benjamin Weinthal was New York University’s first All-American collegiate wrestler and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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