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Iran Tightens Grip On U.S. In Wrestling Arena

Rasul Tavakoli (bottom) of Iran fights American Michael Tamillow during their 96kg men's wrestling match in Tehran.
TEHRAN (Reuters) -- Iran has gained the upper hand against its old foe the United States in the arena of sports, winning two straight matches in a wrestling contest that coincides with talk of a possible thaw in bilateral ties.

Six U.S. wrestlers are taking part in the two-day Takhti Cup at Tehran's Azadi (Freedom) sports complex, together with athletes from Cuba, Iraq, Turkey and other countries.

The first two Americans to enter the competition lost against the Iranians, drawing loud cheers from a small, but enthusiastic crowd in the 12,000-capacity indoor stadium.

"We're getting off to a slow start...we made some pretty critical mistakes," U.S. head coach Zeke Jones said.

But, "it is always a wonderful opportunity to compete with the Iranians. They are such a great wrestling country. It is one of the best tournaments in the world," he said.

In a major shift in U.S. policy, the administration of new President Barack Obama has offered to engage Iran in direct talks, if the Islamic republic "unclenches its fist."

Iran has reacted cautiously to Obama's outreach, saying it wants to see real change in U.S. policy, after Washington, under former U.S. President George W. Bush, spearheaded a drive to isolate Tehran over its disputed nuclear program.

Jones suggested that sporting encounters, such as the Takhti Cup, could play a role in improving ties: "Wrestling is a common bond for the people of America and Iran," he said.

U.S. 'Rock Star'

The United States cut off diplomatic ties with Iran three decades ago, but even though the two countries have been bitter foes they have at times put aside their differences, when it comes to sports.

About 20 American wrestlers and their coaches came to Iran to compete in the same tournament in January 2007, and an Iranian basketball team played in the United States last year.

"I was happy to go here. I heard they love wrestling," said U.S. wrestler Michael Tamillow, who lost against Rasul Tavakoli in the 96-kilogram freestyle event.

The two athletes hugged each other afterwards.

"It was definitely a fair match," said Tamillow, sweat trickling down his face. "It feels good, but I wish I had won."

The second match seemed more tense, with a disappointed Michael Zadik declining to speak to reporters after his defeat against Mostafa Hosseinkhani in the 66-kilogram weight class.

Since 2006, 75 Iranians including basketball and table tennis players have come to the United States under an exchange program.

But in February, Iran did not issue visas for a U.S. women's badminton team to compete in the country, a move the Obama administration at the time called "unfortunate."

Jones praised the hosts: "The Iranian people are wonderful. They make you feel more like a rock star than anything else."