With China, it was ping-pong diplomacy. With Cuba, baseball.
Now soccer may become the ice-breaker between the United States and Iran when their respective men's national teams meet Sunday afternoon at Pasadena's venerable Rose Bowl.
The game has riveted the attention of southern California's huge Iranian community (at 500,000 to 1 million, it's the largest outside Iran itself) as much because it may lead to rapprochement between the two countries as because soccer is their favorite sport.
"This is not just a game," says Nayereh Tohidi, a sociologist at California State University, Northridge. "It's the start of something positive."
The stage was set by a match between the two countries in Lyon, France, during 1998 World Cup competition when, despite a hard-fought 2-1 Iranian victory, the sportsmanship, respect, and evident good feeling between the teams had an electric effect even on nonfans in both nations.
In what came to be called "the football revolution," thousands of young Iranians poured into Tehran's streets to celebrate their team's return with an open joyfulness that challenged the cultural strictures of the nation's conservative clerics.
And Americans got to see Iranians as ordinary human beings rather than slogan-shouting terrorists.
Many hope that Sunday's game, the first toe-to-toe matchup in the US since the 1979 hostage crisis, will build on that foundation.
In Iran, where 60 percent of the population is under 20, youthful soccer fans could become a powerful force for social change. Last July, student protesters clashed with Islamic hard-liners, symbolizing political tensions that persist today with parliamentary elections near.
The soccer match comes at a time when the two nations lack diplomatic relations. And Mohamad Khatami, the moderate Iranian president elected in 1997, would like to see the US lift economic sanctions before mending diplomatic fences.
But if official ties remain frosty, many ethnic Iranians in the sun-drenched southland maintain close ties with friends and relatives in Iran.
And their enthusiasm about Sunday's match provides a glimpse into one of the most dynamic and diverse immigrant groups in Greater Los Angeles.
Iranian families and college students have lived in Los Angeles for years, drawn by economic opportunity and a familiar climate. But their numbers were relatively small prior to the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s.
The overthrow of the Shah brought the first of two major waves of immigrants, says Ms. Tohidi, a contributor to the landmark 1993 study "Irangeles: Iranians in Los Angeles."
Many of the new arrivals were from the upper classes that had supported the old regime. A second wave, including professionals and intellectuals fearing religious or political persecution, came in the early 1980s. They defied the easy stereotyping that often plagues immigrant groups.
Most were highly educated and reflected Iran's religious diversity beyond Islam and its ethnic diversity.
Settling principally in the San Fernando Valley, the west side of Los Angeles, Orange County, and to some extent farther south in San Diego, many of the new arrivals established businesses and moved into professions such as law, medicine, education, and technology.
They also became involved in politics. Democrat Maziar Mafi of Laguna Beach, for example, is challenging the 47th District's powerful Republican congressional representative, Christopher Cox.
"[Iranians] tend to become involved in their society," says Shamil Erfanian, who immigrated as a teenager 20 years ago, "They do not seclude themselves."
But success has not come without cost. Men used to wealth and power arrived in America with nothing and faced downward mobility. Women, some of whom had never worked outside the house in their more socially conservative homeland, often had to help support their families. Many established businesses, implicitly challenging traditional gender-based hierarchy. Divorces, many initiated by women, increased.
The soccer match Sunday has meaning for all.
For young ethnic Iranians in America, it could solidify ties to their cultural roots. "It reminds everyone that the youth haven't forgotten their culture," says UCLA student Nikoo Nikoomanesh. For those in Iran, it may boost reform candidates in the coming elections. For the US and Iran, says Tohidi, "It is a process of healing the wounds between these two nations."
And for soccer fans, it just might be a great game.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society