Politics and sports appear to have collided, squandering the chances for a rare opportunity of wrestling diplomacy between Iran and the United States.
Athletes from the two countries, which haven't had diplomatic relations for more than four decades, were supposed to square off in a wrestling match in Arlington, Texas, on February 12.
But Iran's Wrestling Federation announced on February 3 that it had decided not to travel to the United States to participate in the exhibition match after six members of the delegation, including federation chief Alireza Dabir, were denied visas.
Washington has not publicly commented on the reported visa denial. But the reports come after Dabir publicly expressed support for the Islamic republic's "Death to America" chant and said that he "didn't like" the United States.
USA Wrestling, the governing body for freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling in the United States, has called on the Iranian federation to reconsider the decision and send those delegation members who have been approved to enter the country.
"The USA and Iran would still be able to host a highly competitive dual meet, which would benefit both national teams and provide wrestling fans worldwide with an exciting showcase of the sport," the body said in a statement issued on February 3.
A video of Dabir's comments made in January was posted online by activists who said that people like him should not be allowed to travel to the United States.
"We always chant 'Death to America' but more important is showing it in action," Dabir, who was reportedly a U.S. Green Card holder for several years, can be heard saying in the video.
Chanting "Death To America" and burning U.S. flags have been a common feature of state-sponsored events in Iran for the past 40 years. In recent years, however, public opposition to the message appears to have increased in Iran.
Many Iranians have accused politicians promoting anti-American positions of hypocrisy, particularly those seen as having ties to the United States. For example, former Vice President Massumeh Ebtekar, the spokeswoman for the Islamic student revolutionaries who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, has a son who lives in California.
Dabir added that "a doctor, he might even be wearing a tie (eds. seen as a symbol of Western culture), but he is doing his job well. I believe he is saying 'Death to America.' Some talk a lot but don't do much. We need to prove it to the world with action."
The U.S. State Department did not respond to an RFE/RL query about the reports it had denied visas to Dabir and five other members of the Iranian delegation.
In a separate January 17 interview, Dabir said he had "returned" his Green Card -- a resident permit that allows people to work and live permanently in the United States -- seven years ago. "The U.S. Embassy asked the federation why Dabir returned his Green Card. They asked me and I said that I didn't like your country," he told Varzesh3.com.
"It's not logical for someone to repeat a chant against a country and expect to receive a visa from that country," Denmark-based Iranian sports journalist Mehdi Rostampour told RFE/RL's Radio Farda, adding that Iran would have done the same.
He added that the cancelling of the match would be a blow for the Iranian wrestling team. Both countries are wrestling powerhouses.
Iranian-American activist Sardar Pashaei, the former head coach of Iran's national Greco-Roman wrestling team, told Fox News that Washington should ban "all Iranian officials who hate the United States" from entering the country.
"I am glad that the U.S. State Department did not issue visas to those who said 'Death to America' and at the same time wanted to enter the United States," said Pashai, who has campaigned against the Islamic republic for executing wrestler Navid Afkari in 2020 following his conviction for murdering a security guard during mass anti-government protests in Iran in 2018.
In a letter to U.S. counterpart Rich Bender, Dabir said he was left "with no choice but to cancel the trip" after he and two wrestlers, the coach, the team leader, and an Olympic referee from the Iranian federation were not issued U.S. visas. He complained about what he described as the "disrespectful and impolite" behavior of some staff members at the U.S. Consulate in Dubai, where he said his team members waited five hours to be "interrogated."
The United States does not have an embassy or consulate in Iran, and as a result Iranians seeking to travel to the United States must travel to another country to apply for a visa.
Dabir invited the U.S. wrestling team to come to Iran as soon as possible for a friendly match with the Iranian team. "I assure you that my fellow wrestling and hospitable compatriots will welcome you with open arms," he said in his letter.
The Iranian and U.S. wrestling teams have competed in each other's countries more than 30 times in recent years. U.S. wrestlers have praised the warm welcome they have received in Iran, which has a passionate wrestling fan base.
In 2017, then-U.S. President Donald Trump imposed a travel ban against seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran. U.S. wrestlers traveled to Iran for the Wrestling World Cup after a court dismissed Trump's ban and Tehran lifted a reciprocal ban.
In 1998 the U.S. freestyle-wrestling team traveled to Iran to participate in the Takhti Cup in the Iranian capital, marking the first time the U.S. side had competed in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the taking of U.S. diplomats in Tehran as hostages.