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IRAN: Despite tensions, soccer diplomacy in the works

May 28, 2009 |  7:12 am

Iran-soccer While the Obama administration is mulling over the possibility of engaging Iran, the United States Soccer Federation has beaten U.S. officials to it. 

Two months ago, USSF President Sunil Gulati sent a letter to his Iranian counterpart, Ali Kafashian, requesting a friendly soccer match, meaning it wouldn't count toward tournament play.

The invitation was sent directly to Kafashian, missing the intermediary typical of recent Iranian-U.S. relations.

No agreement has been reached yet, but Kafashian on Tuesday expressed the Islamic Republic’s willingness to play the American national team. 

Details are contingent on how Iran's team does in the World Cup 2010 qualifying games, but in the meantime, the nation's soccer authorities are looking into the legal steps required for such a match. 

The Iranian team, currently fourth in its qualifying group, is set to fly to North Korea on June 6 aboard President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s plane for a bout in the Asian qualifying matches. 

If the Iranian team automatically qualifies for the World Cup, it could green-light the friendly in Tehran’s Azadi stadium as early as this October or November, followed by a match in Los Angeles. 

American participation also depends on how its World Cup qualifying matches play out. 

Much like the spectacle of political relations between the U.S. and Iran, the last few Iranian-American matches have been nail-biters, with Iran edging out the U.S. 2-1 and eliminating the Americans from the 1998 World Cup. 

Two friendlies in Los Angeles in 2000 and 2006 both ended in a 1-1 draw. 

Despite excitement over a possible match, Kafashian told an American soccer website that political realities color international soccer: "We, however, have to abide by Iran's Islamic Republic politics and we will follow the guidelines.”

-- Jahd Khalil in Beirut

Photo: Frankie Hejduk of the U.S. uses his head to advance the ball against Iran during a 1998 match. Credit: Eric Draper / Associated Press