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Sports Exchanges with Iran Build Bridges


Iranian national table tennis and basketball teams visit the United States

Washington -- Sports exchanges are one tool to help rebuild bridges between U.S. and Iranian societies after 30 years of estrangement, said Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns at a July 9 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on U.S. relations with Iran.

This summer, the Iranian national basketball and table tennis teams competed in the United States during the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.  Burns said these exchanges are one of the "creative ways to deepen our own engagement with Iran and its people, who remain among the most pro-American populations in the region."  Burns emphasized that the United States is "committed to using educational, cultural, and sports exchanges" in this effort.

The visit of Iran's national basketball team, which played in a U.S. National Basketball Association (NBA) summer league July 15-22, was a result of a partnership between the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the NBA.  Partnering with the U.S. Olympic Committee, the Department of State brought over Iran's table tennis team to compete in the United States June 24 to July 8. According to Burns, the table tennis team's visit was the first time female Iranian athletes participated in a sports exchange program with the United States. 

During summer league play, the Iranian national basketball team faced the Dallas Mavericks practice squad on July 19 and the Utah Jazz practice squad on July 21. 

The Iranian team featured center Hamed Ehadadi, the 218 cm (7 feet 2 inch) Iranian center, who scored 31 points in Iran's victory against Lebanon in the 2007 FIBA Asian championship game.  In the game against Dallas, Ehadadi scored 19 points and grabbed 16 rebounds.  Against Utah, Ehadadi was also dominant, until a back injury caused him to withdraw from the game late in the second quarter.

Despite two losses, the Iranian team proved its basketball abilities in competitive play against these two American teams. NBA summer leagues usually feature younger NBA players who have played professionally for three years or less, including newly drafted players, and select free agents, who are not affiliated with any team.  The Chinese national team competed against American teams last year.

"The NBA embraces the opportunity to welcome the Basketball Federation of Iran and the Iranian Olympic team in a demonstration of how something as simple as a game of basketball can promote understanding," NBA Commissioner David Stern said.

In 2006, President Bush called for expanded people-to-people exchanges with Iran. The State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs works with partners to facilitate these relationships.  "We've brought hundreds of Iranian professionals to the United States to participate in programs focused on not just sports but also health, education, disaster relief, rule of law, Farsi language teaching, art and agriculture," said Educational and Cultural Affairs Assistant Secretary Goli Ameri.

People-to-people exchanges are invaluable, Ameri said. "Iranians have a young, vibrant and sophisticated society, and they are interested in making connections to Americans and being a part of the global community."

Sports exchanges between Iran and the U.S. began in 1998 when the U.S. wrestling team visited Iran for the Takhti Cup, where some of the world's best wrestlers compete. The team was enthusiastically greeted by the Iranian public, and a new relationship between American and Iranian athletes was initiated. American wrestlers most recently competed in the Takhti Cup in January 2007. (See "U.S. Wrestlers Excited by Challenge of Takhti Cup in Iran" and "Takhti Cup Competition Strengthens U.S.-Iran Wrestling Ties.")

Read more: "United States Seeks To Engage the Iranian People."

To learn more about U.S.-Iran people-to-people sports exchanges see "Sports Diplomacy with Iran."

About U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) engages international audiences on issues of foreign policy, society and values to help create an environment receptive to U.S. national interests.

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