April 20, 2021

Recently, several Iranian dissidents accused the head of the Islamic Republic’s National Olympic Committee, Seyed Reza Salehi, of torturing and murdering Kurdish and Azeri political prisoners when he was an intelligence officer.

In a recent article, Jerusalem Post, relying on information contained in a Tweet by Sardar Pashaei, the former head coach of Iran’s Greco-Roman wrestling team, noted: “Is the Olympics aware that there are horrific reports about Seyed Reza Salehi, the president of the NOC of Iran? During his time as senior director at the Ministry of Intelligence, he went by the name of Seyed Reza Fallah and was involved in the torture and murder of prisoners.”

Salehi, who operated under the false name of Fallah to hide his true identity, is accused of killing Azerbaijani dissidents in reports by US government outlets Voice of America and Radio Farda.

Politicization of Iran’s sports is a widely known fact, and widely ignored by the sports organizing authorities in the West. Sports in Iran has been thrust into the limelight after the Islamic Republic executed Navid Afkari, a champion wrestler, in September 2020 for having protested against the regime, despite a widespread campaign to spare his life.

In the past two decades, the management of a number of sports has fallen under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a paramilitary organization tasked with safeguarding the regime. The U.S. officially designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization in 2019.

Many Iranian athletes have fled the country to seek better opportunities abroad to be able to reach their full potential elsewhere.

As noted by Mohammad Dadkan, a former soccer player from the Persepolis team who served as the President of the Iranian Football Federation, “Iranian sports are full of police and Revolutionary Guards commanders. What are they doing in sports? What are they doing in football? Do they want to hold Iranian sports back? If they are good managers, they should go back to their jobs in the barracks.”

In fact, most of Iran’s sporting federations such as football, judo, and wrestling are managed by former Revolutionary Guards commanders who lack experience in managing such entities. For example, Mehdi Taj, a former Revolutionary Guards commander from the city of Esfahan, became the managing director at Persepolis before becoming head of Iran’s Football Federation.

Various other Revolutionary commanders with a record of shady activities currently manage various sporting branches of the country. For example, Karim Mallahi another senior IRGC commander has been running management positions in charge of running Tehran’s Pas and Mashhad’s Abu Muslem Clubs for many years while Hojjatoleslam Hassan Kordmihan, the leader of the attack on the Saudi embassy, recently became the cultural deputy of the Judo Federation in 2020. The list is very long.

The bottom-line is various repressive elements of the Islamic Republic of Iran have taken complete control of sports and the regime has executed various athletes ranging from swimmers to box and volleyball players. All this has taken place with little to no repercussions from the international community such as the International Olympic Committee. In fact, such murders have never elicited any suspension of the Islamic Republic of Iran from the Olympics.

Lack of concrete action on the part of the International community to the Islamic Republic’s egregious human rights violations against athletes has been quite disappointing. In fact, as part of campaign called #United4Navid, dozens of Iranian athletes and human rights activists have come together to plead with the international community, and urge the International Olympic Committee to suspend the Islamic Republic from international sports as long as the regime continues to harm athletes.

So far the IOC has not taken any action apart from expressing concern over the execution of Afkari. Yet, the IOC previously sanctioned South Africa’s apartheid government from 1964’s Tokyo Olympics, sending a strong message to the world: apartheid runs counter to the sprits of sports.

It is time for the IOC to honor its own charter and demand that Iranian sports are freed from the political pressures put on them.

BY: Vahid Yucesoy