Can Barack Obama revive soccer diplomacy?

Most Americans now prefer diplomacy towards Iran rather than seek a knee jerk military solution.
After virtually turning off the charm school for eight years and surrendering foreign policy to the unilateral wet dream of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, Americans have woken to an unfamiliar sense of vulnerability brought on by two draining wars and an unraveling economy. Do they want to go down the sickening path of more obituaries for their young men and women who are manipulated into fighting essentially wars of choice? The mushroom cloud used cynically as the final solution.
It is thus time to dust off those long forgotten practitioners of negotiations and treaties to find a low cost solution to those less inclined to think kindly of us. Let them earn their salaries too. Iran’s religious orthodoxy coupled with its nuclear ambition poses a problem but so do half a dozen other countries which the US has willfully chosen to ignore. However, amongst the ME countries, Iran also has the largest group of well educated and youthful progressives who resist the clerics in power. They are well known to many in the world deeply appreciative of their contributions to music, art, and films.
Overarching all this is Iran’s passion for soccer. The game virtually died out in the Islamic Revolution until recently revived by Iran’s largest demographic, the under 30s, who have shaped the team’s recent success. Team Melli was followed by thousands of young flag waving Iranians festooned with face paint flocking to Germany in the last World Cup to watch their heroes Ali Daei, Ali Karimi, and Mehdi Mahdavikia in action. It even moved Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the West’s favourite bogeyman to declare that he would attend the matches knowing that this would spark an outrage.
Iran’s participation brought out a surfeit of right wing frothing in the USA and Europe with the customary references to suicide bombers and Neville Chamberlain. John McCain had already moved a resolution in the Senate Foreign Committee to demand that FIFA ban Iran’s participation. The Shiite government in Iraq was warming up to Iran at that time and there was a lot of heartburn going around at that time amongst the AEI geniuses in charge of this war who had failed to predict this development.
However in all this chest thumping, the 1998 World Cup provides a prudent reminder of solutions that would not be worth spit in a neo-con’s playbook. On July 22, 1998 Iran met the USA in one of the most highly anticipated matches. It came at a salient moment in Iranian history. The president Mohammed Khatami, a moderate had been elected a year ago, signaling the end of the Islamic revolution opening up a potential conduit to societal and cultural reform. Both countries wanted to tone down the rhetoric and no one underestimated the significance of the match.
“Before the match, Iran’s starting players handed their U.S. counterparts white flowers– a symbol of peace. In turn, the Americans gave the Iranian athletes pennants from the U.S. Soccer Federation. The teams then broke tradition and posed for a group picture.”
The media came up with a whole spectrum of opnions. Some were understandably dismissive of the significance of a mere match. Amongst the most opimistic:
“As an act of consummate popular diplomacy, President Clinton yesterday used the Iran-America clash on the football field to make a direct appeal for an end to the 20-year diplomatic standoff between the two countries. Mr. Clinton’s brief message was the latest, and by far the most public, step in a slow warming of United States policy towards Iran.”
No one is naive enough to believe that soccer itself provides the panacea to the profound disagreements between the two countries. Moreover, any sort of leverage is lost when you get classified as the “Axes of Evil.” Complicating this is Israel’s relationship with the ME which is that of an unloved stepsister. It glows when the US assigns another carrier force to the Persian Gulf and glowers when the UN and the Norwegians get involved (Where are you Terje Rød-Larsen?). The Iranian establishment has turned rightward since the Iraq War with Ahmedinejad’s election and it makes negotiations tougher. But in an under the radar move, the Bush administration seems to have thawed out a bit sending their ME point person to negotiate with the Iranians on nuclear transparency.
Barack Obama should build up on this late found pragmatism and follow up on his stated desire to meet with even some of the most vocal anti-American critics. If he can break bread with Joe Lieberman, the most sanctimonious douchebag in US politics, who at every step belittled him in the presidential elections, meeting up with Ahmedinejad and Hugo Chavez should be relatively easy to digest. In 1997, the Islamic Revolution came to an end on the backs of an unprecedented show of youth power. Change was in the air, a break from Iran’s decades long theocracy which had suffocated progress and reform. Much like this year’s election showed an engaged youth vote ushering in Obama to clean up the cesspool accumulated over the last eight years. The Republicans continued to invoke 9/11 to push war all the while equating diplomacy with palling around with terrorists. Their stridency shutdown even moderate voices within the Republican establishment like Brent Scowcroft and Thomas Kean. The hardline attiude did not pay dividends in the ME with Iran’s Islamists returning to power defeating Khatami. Ironically, they used the Iraq War to marginalize the reform movement.
We have to realize that in 1998, the US was in a position of power, flush with economic success and political capital. The US competing with other centers of power like Europe, Russia, China, and India was unthinkable. Its a vastly different equation now. We have to start building new relationships.
Obama should explore confidence building measures which are out of the box between the two countries, like popular and high profile sporting contacts. He does not have to wait for an incidental World Cup match to do so. It could be an exchange of friendly matches between Iran and USA at first. He has a great cache of support within FIFA and USA Soccer to make this happen. He also has a ready audience in the soccer mom demographic who went for him decisively after becoming increasingly disillusioned by the war and John McCain’s choice of Palin. But the most powerful moments will come from the players themselves as they realize that they are part of a transformational process of changing the perspective of their countrymen to the other. To show that they go beyond politics, to shake hands, help each other up when fouls occur, and kick the ball out to stop play so that an injured player can get help. To shine their country in the best light. As player diplomats. As James Reston said of the Iranians during the 1998 match.
“I mean, not only did they have to play the game well but they carried the dignity of Iran and also the dignity of Islam onto that field.”
Obama is the most plugged in presidential candidate we have had. He’s surely seen sports as a powerful tool which not just divided but also in the end built bridges between the races in this country. We can explore elements of that transferability in addressing an even more challenging task.

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