USA Wrestling president apologizes to Iranian team
April 4, 1998
Web posted at: 5:20 p.m. EST (2220 GMT)
STILLWATER, Oklahoma (CNN) -- The president of USA Wrestling
has apologized to members of an Iranian wrestling team who
were upset about being fingerprinted and photographed upon
their arrival in the United States.
The team is competing this weekend in the World Cup of
Freestyle Wrestling at Oklahoma State University.
Team members say they were detained for almost three hours at
Chicago's O'Hare International Airport Wednesday while they
were fingerprinted and photographed.
Iranian Wrestling Federation President Mohammed Taleghani
said, through an interpreter, that "it was a bad experience
to be treated as criminals."
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service at O'Hare
told CNN that fingerprinting and photographing is standard
procedure for people visiting the United States for the first
time from certain countries, including Iran.
USA Wrestling President Larry Sciacchetano apologized to the
Iranians for their treatment.
"I certainly apologize to the Iranian delegation and to the
Iranian people for that inconvenience," he said
He surmised that O'Hare officials may not have been prepared
for the Iranians' arrival, because original plans had them
entering the country through Atlanta.
An attempt to improve relations
The wrestling competition comes during attempts to improve
relations between the two countries. In February, a U.S.
wrestling team made a groundbreaking trip to Iran. The
countries also are promoting scientific and cultural
It is not so many years ago that then-Iranian leader
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini thundered against the "great
Satan," the United States.
The U.S. wrestling team's visit to Iran was the first by
American athletes since the 1979 overthrow of the
U.S.-backed shah and the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in
Tehran by Islamic militants. They held 52 Americans hostage
for 444 days before their release in 1981.
'A sort of permanent hostility'
Time may not heal all wounds, but after nearly two decades of
enmity the United States and Iran are beginning to speak to
each other, which could lead to better understanding, and
perhaps, one day, reconciliation.
It is a delicate process, step by step. And one of them has
been taken at Columbia University.
At a day-long session Wednesday, Iranians and Americans --
academics and mid-level diplomats from the two governments --
came face to face. The timing may be right, on both sides.
"The U.S. government had settled into a sort of permanent
hostility," said Gary Sick, who was a National Security
Council adviser from 1976 to 1981.
"You didn't have to think about it. Nobody every challenged
you on the inside about what you thought about Iran. You just
disliked them, that's all. Suddenly that view began to be
questioned," Sick said.
Iranian leader wants cultural exchanges
Mohammad Khatami, Iran's president, has called for closer
"Not only do we not harbor any ill wishes for the American
people, but in fact we consider them to be a great nation,"
he said in an interview on CNN.
An American response came when President Clinton voiced the
hope that, "The day will soon come when the United States can
once again enjoy good relations with Iran." Government-
controlled radio in Iran broadcast Clinton's message.
The problem is that Iran's other religious leaders, who also
hold power, do not want a dialogue, and may try to block the
Khatami's desire to talk to the United States.
So what do two presidents in Washington and Teheran do when
they want better relations but are afraid the effort may blow
up in their face? They move cautiously, and they turn, not
to diplomats, but to people who hold no official position.
At Wednesday's conference, Iranian and American diplomats
spoke in generalities.
'We can help change the atmosphere'
But it is someone like John Marks who is actually doing
something. Marks organized the visit of American wrestlers
"We brought the American flag back to Teheran with honor but
without chauvinism, and in an atmosphere of mutual respect,"
Marks said. "What we can do is help to change the
atmosphere. We can change the climate, we can create some of
the openings. But if the governments are not interested,
nothing is going to happen in the end."
But the governments are interested. And so, 12 Iranian
freestyle wrestlers, three coaches and six other members of
the Iranian team will take part in the tournament, as their
nations draw closer together.
Correspondent Garrick Utley contributed to this report.