Iran relents on visas for US wrestlers headed to World Cup

In response to President Trump's executive order banning Iranians from entering the United States, Iran had temporarily banned US wrestlers from participating in the Freestyle World Cup competition this month.

Vahid Salemi/AP/File
Iran's freestyle wrestler Fardin Masoumi (l.) and his US competitor, Tervel Dlagnev, fight during Iran's Takhti Wrestling Cup at the Azadi stadium in Tehran, Iran, in 2009.

The prickly relationship between Washington and Tehran eased slightly over the weekend, as the Iranian foreign ministry announced the country would, after all, issue visas for the US wrestling team.

Just two days earlier, Iran had responded to President Trump’s executive order banning visas for citizens of seven nations – including Iran – by declaring a ban on visas for the US team, which had been planning to travel to the country in mid-February for the Freestyle World Cup.

But on that same day, a US federal judge in Seattle announced he would temporarily block Mr. Trump’s order nationwide. That decision was one of the factors leading Iran to reverse its stance on the wrestlers, as Reuters reports. 

Some in Tehran had been critical of the initial Iranian response, saying their country should instead do the opposite of Trump and welcome the wrestlers with open arms. Over the past two decades, competitors from both nations have entered each other’s countries numerous times to wrestle, irrespective of the political climate between their governments.

“We don't think politics (should) have any role in this,” USA Wrestling executive director Rich Bender said, according to the Associated Press. “But, unfortunately, sometimes you can't control that.”

Where the saga will go next is uncertain, with US policy set for a showdown in San Francisco’s federal appeals court. Already, Minnesota and Washington State – the two states that initially went to court to seek a restraining order on Trump’s immigration ban – have filed their arguments; the US Justice Department has until 3 p.m. Monday to do the same.

The Californian court leans to the left, suggesting it may rule in favor of maintaining the hold on Trump’s ban, as Bloomberg reports. But some observers expect the losing side could petition the nation’s Supreme Court to intervene, asking justices to take on the broader question of how much power the executive branch can wield over issues of immigration and national security.

“Overturning the [Seattle] ruling would cause such anguish and confusion at the borders,” Jayashri Srikantiah, a Stanford Law School professor who specializes in immigration, told Bloomberg. While she added that it’s “extremely hard to bet” on what the appeals court will do, she also pointed out that “one can imagine the confusion caused by reversing the [temporary restraining order] is something the court is taking into consideration.”

Immigration bans are just one area in which the relationship between Tehran and Washington is feeling the pressure. Just over a week ago, Iran carried out a ballistic missile test, prompting a tweet from Trump saying the country was “playing with fire,” and drawing fresh sanctions from the US.

An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Bahram Qasemi, said Monday that the missile launch was not intended as a “message to the new US government,” Reuters reported. Mr. Qasemi went on to say that Iran had no need to test Trump as they “have heard his views on different issues in recent days.... We know him quite well.”

As for the US wrestlers, assuming there are no further changes on the visa front, they will be winging their way to the Iranian city of Kermanshah to test their mettle in one of world wrestling’s most prestigious events, set to take place Feb. 16 to 17.

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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