Wrestling diplomacy cuts tension at nuclear talks with Iran

ALMATY Tue Feb 26, 2013 8:30pm IST

ALMATY (Reuters) - For a brief moment on Tuesday, the nuclear dispute between Iran and the United States took a back seat to sport.

U.S. diplomats found rare common ground with the Islamic Republic at a fresh round of nuclear negotiations between Tehran and world powers, noting Iran's victory in the freestyle wrestling World Cup held in the Iranian capital last week.

Sports officials from the two countries - which are at odds over the nuclear issue and many others - have expressed dismay at a surprise recommendation by the International Olympic Committee this month to drop wrestling from the 2020 Games.

"During the plenary, we did note Iran's success in the recent wrestling World Cup and our shared view that wrestling should continue to be an Olympic sport," a U.S. official said on Tuesday after the start of high-stakes nuclear talks.

Iran and six world powers are holding their first meeting in eight months in the Kazakh city of Almaty this week, to try to start resolving a dispute over Tehran's nuclear programme that threatens to trigger another war in the Middle East.

Diplomatic ties between Iran and the United States have been cut since 1980 after Iranian students took 52 U.S. diplomats hostage in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

But wrestling, one of Iran's most popular sports, has proven a rare arena in which the two countries have friendly relations.

U.S. wrestlers visited Tehran last week to compete in the World Cup, where 2012 Olympic gold medallist Jordan Burroughs was cheered on wildly by Iranian fans at the capital's Azadi stadium.

"Iran has amazing fans!" Burroughs tweeted, posting a picture of Iranian supporters eagerly reaching down over a barrier at the stadium to touch his hand.

A second U.S. official told reporters in Almaty prior to the start of the February 26-27 talks that Iran and the United States agreed that wrestling should continue as an Olympic sport.

"Although we cannot come to agreement yet where it comes to Iran's nuclear programme, clearly our wrestlers get along just fine," the U.S. official said.

"We and Iran agree completely that the Olympics should continue to have wrestling as a sport ... so we will be working vigorously with them to make that come to pass."

There was no immediate reaction to the U.S. statement from Iranian diplomats. Wrestling is a major source of Iran's Olympic medals, and Iranian sports officials have said they will work with other countries to lobby for it to stay in the Games.

"The issue of removing wrestling from the Olympics is very serious," Mohammad Aliabadi, the head of Iran's Olympic committee, told state news agency IRNA this month.

"We must prevent this action with the help of many of the major countries in the world," Aliabadi said, without naming any specific nation.

(Editing by Jon Hemming)

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