So deep is the hatred of the Iranian regime for Israel that it will not let any of its athletes compete against Israeli athletes, insisting that they instead refuse to play, even though that causes their automatic disqualification from the competition. It has happened in boxing, in wrestling, and especially, in judo, and now — in the game that was invented in Iran — in chess.
A bit of background: The most dramatic case of the mullahs interfering with Iranian athletes has been that involving Saeid Mollaei, formerly the world champion in judo. He was frequently forced to deliberately throw games with non-Israeli players so that he would not move up to the next level, if that would mean he’d have to compete with an Israeli. The Iranian coach, Mohamed Mansouri, describes how the hero of Iranian judo had to avoid facing one Israeli competitor: “Saeid Mollaei [the Iranian champion judoka] once was forced to feign sickness for four times in one single year, to avoid fighting an Israeli. In Abu Dhabi, they plastered his healthy leg, as an excuse for leaving the competition. Perhaps the most dramatic disqualification was when Iranian authorities, the Iranian Sports Minister, and the presidents of the Iran Judo Federation, and the Iran Olympic Committee, all ordered Mollaei to intentionally lose in the semi-final at the Tokyo 2019 World Championships, so as to avoid a potential match in the finals against Israeli 2019 world champion Sagi Muki.
Mollaei, full of sorrow and rage, did as he was told.
But saying he was afraid to return to Iran after exposing and criticizing its pressure on him to deliberately lose in the World Championships to avoid a potential bout against Muki, in August 2019, Mollaei left Japan, and moved to Europe with a two-year visa from Germany. In November 2019, he was granted asylum by Germany, and that same month, he competed as part of the IJF (International Judo Federation) refugee team at the Osaka Grand Slam. Muki — the Israeli he had avoided competing against in Japan — congratulated Mollaei for returning to judo and participating in Osaka in his first competition since the World Championships in Tokyo. Mollaei, in turn, thanked Muki for his support and wrote: “Good luck to you all the time, my best friend.” Mollaei also posted a photo of them standing together, and wrote: “This is true friendship and a win for sports and judo over politics.” Mollaei also posted a photo of them, the Iranian and the Israeli, standing together, and wrote: “This is true friendship and a win for sports and judo over politics.” This must have driven the mullahs wild with anger.
On December 1, 2019, Mongolian President Khaltmaagiin Battulga (himself the chairman of Mongolian Judo Federation) offered Mollaei citizenship, which he accepted.
Mollaei arrived in Israel in February 2021 to compete at the Tel Aviv Grand Prix. He represented Mongolia at Grand Slam Hungary 2020 and won bronze medal in the –81 kg category.
Mollaei trained in Israel with the Israeli national judo team in the months prior to the 2020 Summer Olympics. He went on to win the silver medal in the men’s –81 kg event. Mollaei, who in 2019 had to avoid playing an Israeli, has been befriended by Israelis, trained in Israel, and become a supporter of the Jewish state. That wasn’t what the rulers in Tehran had had in mind.
Among the ways that the Iranian government has forced its athletes to avoid competing against Israelis, has been keeping them above their required weight limit. Another Iranian superstar judoka, Mohammad Mohammadi Barimanlou, was told to stop losing weight in order that he would not qualify in his weight class, so that he would be eliminated from the next round of the championship, in order that “that he wouldn’t face an Israeli.”
And now we come to chess, and the latest Iranian refusal to play against an Israeli. The story of how an Iranian grandmaster refused to play an Israeli, and thus disqualified himself from the competition, is here: “German Sports Behemoth Bayern Munich in Quandary Over Iranian Chess Player’s Boycott of Israelis,” Algemeiner, December 16, 2022:
German sports powerhouse FC Bayern Munich is in the spotlight after Amin Tabatabaei — an Iranian national who competes for its professional chess team — threw a match at a tournament in Barcelona rather than play against an Israeli.
Tabatabaei, a 21-year-old grandmaster, abandoned his game against 21-year-old Israeli Netanel Levi after just one move on Monday.
It is fascinating that Tabatabaei did not refuse to show up for the match with the Israeli. Perhaps he was still pondering what to do and was in a mood to risk it, but after he, and Levi, had made their first moves, he suddenly took fright, thinking of what would await him in Iran if he continued the game, and at that point, without saying anything, no doubt both scared and embarrassed, he simply got up and left, forfeiting the game to the Israeli.
Tabatabaei did not issue a statement explaining his decision, but observers at the Sunway Chess Festival in Barcelona told local media outlets that he was concerned about possible reprisals from the ruling regime once he returned to Iran. The Islamic Republic’s official policy rejects Israel’s right to exist and bans Iranian athletes from competitions that feature Israelis.
The player has already experienced the ire of the Iranian authorities, who banned him from competing in two tournaments after he played against an Israeli opponent three years ago.
That he had three years before played against an Israeli opponent showed that he, as an individual, bore the Israeli players no ill will. But he had been punished, banned from competing in two subsequent tournaments. If he disobeyed the Iranian authorities again, he could expect to be banned for life from tournament play, or might even face imprisonment by the Iranian authorities.
On Friday, German media outlets speculated that Bayern had so far remained silent on Tabatabaei’s decision out of concern for his welfare. According to the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung news outlet, the club is unsure of what to say in a statement, because “if it turns out that Tabatabaei made this decision because he is afraid of reprisals from the Iranian government, it could endanger the grandmaster and his family if FC Bayern made this public.”
Just as Tabatabaei remained silent on his sudden withdrawal from the match, the German chess club Bayern, that sponsored the match, has been silent. What, after all, can it say? If it tells the truth, and says that he withdrew out of fear of reprisals by the Iranian government, then when Tabatabaei returns to Iran he will be severely punished – and his relatives, too – for making the Iranian regime look bad.
If the Bayern club, on the other hand, says that it thinks that “Tabatabaei had an objection to playing an Israeli opponent” that would 1) be a flat-out lie and 2) would hold him, instead of the Iranian regime, up for scorn, which Tabatabaei, only trying to protect himself and his relatives from the regime’s savage reprisals, of course does not deserve. Perhaps the only thing the Bayern club can do is to very carefully announce that “in light of the withdrawal of Grandmaster Tabatabaei, we have no choice but to recommend to the International Chess Federation that the Iranian Chess Federation be banned from tournament play for the next (2, 5, 10) years.” Then Tabatabaei can continue to play tournament chess as a citizen, and proud representative, of Mongolia.