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U.S., Iranian Wrestlers Get To Grips In Sign Of Thaw

Wrestling match in Takhti cup, Tehran
TEHRAN (Reuters) -- A group of U.S. athletes is in Iran for a wrestling event this week, media has said, in a rare sporting encounter coinciding with speculation of a possible thaw in relations.

Iran's official IRNA news agency said seven U.S. wrestlers would take part in the two-day Takhti international competition starting in Tehran's Azadi sports complex on March 12, but gave no further details.

Even though Tehran and Washington have been bitter foes since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, which was followed by the United States cutting diplomatic ties in 1980, they have at times put aside their differences in the arena of sports.

The Iranian wrestling federation was not immediately available for comment on the media reports. Athletes from Turkey, Iraq, Ukraine, Cuba, and Turkmenistan would also take part in the event, the semiofficial Fars News Agency said.

It did not identify any of the wrestlers.

Wrestling is one of Iran's most popular sports, with such events drawing big crowds of fans. About 20 American athletes and their coaches came to Iran for a wrestling competition in January 2007.

The new U.S. administration of President Barack Obama has offered to engage Iran in direct talks if the country "unclenches its fist." Last week, Washington said it would invite Iran to take part in a meeting on Afghanistan this month.

Iran has reacted cautiously to Obama's offer, saying it wants to see real change in U.S. policy after the Republican administration of George W. Bush spearheaded a drive to isolate Tehran over its disputed nuclear program.

Since the United States resumed people-to-people exchanges with Iran in 2006, it has brought 75 Iranians to the United States, including table tennis, basketball, and water polo players.

But in February, Tehran did not issue visas for a U.S. women's badminton team to compete in Iran, a move the Obama administration at the time called "unfortunate" as it seeks to engage Tehran and its people.