Iran Finds Innovative Ways Around Obstacles, From Sports to Sanctions

And Trump also seems to take a page out of Iranian athletes' book

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Iranians gather in celebration in northern Tehran on July 14, 2015, after Iran's nuclear negotiating team struck a deal with world powers in Vienna
Iranians gather in celebration in northern Tehran on July 14, 2015, after Iran's nuclear negotiating team struck a deal with world powers in ViennaCredit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Iran’s inventiveness is not limited to long-range missiles or nuclear technology. This time it’s a wooden board that allows male and female sports trainers to “high-five” each other when their team wins. The board prevents the physical contact of the celebratory high-five hand slap accepted in Western sports, which is prohibited by Iranian law, and yet still allows Iranian women who slap it, together with male trainers, to rejoice with their colleagues.

Male trainers for women’s teams are not accepted in Iran, and in a few cities men are not allowed to be present at games where women are competing. The solution relies on defining the men’s role as sport consultants. They communicate by cellphone with female trainers and do not come into direct contact with the female athletes.

>> Read more: Trump's Gulf standoff is chipping away at the Arab anti-Iran alliance | Analysis ■ Faced with U.S. threats, Iran warms up to Arab neighbors – even Riyadh

The sophistication needed to get around religious sanctions also reveals Iranian inventiveness when it comes to U.S.-imposed sanctions. But in that area, Iran has to find not only markets for its burgeoning oil stocks, but also a shelter for big money by investors or depositors.

When President George W. Bush imposed sanctions on Iran in 2006, wealthy investors and the Iranian government turned to the United Arab Emirates, filling its banks with hundreds of billions of dollars in direct deposits or purchase of assets. Two years later, when the world was stricken by economic crisis, foreign investors pulled their money out of UAE banks. But the Iranians continued to hold their money in the UAE and that gave the latter the breathing room it needed, at least until the economic crisis in Dubai in 2009.

Wealthy Dubai, on the verge of bankruptcy, then had to rely on its sister emirate, Abu Dhabi, which agreed to lend it some $20 billion. But this assistance came with a caveat: Dubai had to cut its ties with Iran as part of the Gulf States’ policy against Iranian influence. In the past three years the UAE had rejected Iranian applications for credit and about 50,000 Iranians have left the UAE. Now Dubai is in the throes of a new economic crisis; the price of real estate has plummeted by more than 24 percent, hotels are at their lowest occupancy in a decade and foreign investors are not quick to arrive. Dubai is once again looking to Iran for a lifeline.

The UAE already started forging closer ties with Iran when it shrank its military presence in Yemen and began to unravel its military alliance with Saudi Arabia. Dubai also recently dispatched a delegation of businessmen to Iran to increase economic cooperation and find legal ways to maintain commerce despite the sanctions. Under pressure from business people, the UAE ruler agreed to grant new visas to legal Iranian investors and to permit banks to open accounts for them. This small friction between the two rival countries might continue, the worse the UAE’s economic condition becomes, thus giving both significant relief. These ties, along with continued oil purchases from Iran by China, according to a New York Times report, highlight the fact that Iran has not yet exhausted its options for getting around the sanctions, and the enormous difficulty in doing so.

Washington, which has been trying to plug every possible hole in its sanctions, can impose new ones on the UAE, or broaden those on China. But the way U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy seems, he’ll prefer the diplomatic route over punishments that could bring the United States into conflict with one of its major Arab allies in the Middle East.

He similarly designed a conciliatory policy toward Turkey by means of an agreement for a vague monitoring system in the security zone in Syria, and the sharp tone toward Ankara softened on the question of the purchase of the Russian S-400 missiles. He also allowed Iraq to hold off on instituting sanctions against Iran until September and is conducting indirect dialogue with the Iranians through Republic Senator Rand Paul. It seems that Trump has adopted the female trainers’ board in conducting negotiations at arm’s length.

The issue of talks with Iran and the diplomatic channel put Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron on a collision course last week, when Trump tweeted: “Iran is in serious financial trouble. They want desperately to talk to the U.S., but are given mixed signals from all of those purporting to represent us, including President Macron of France.” Macron could not remain indifferent to that verbal assault, directed against his efforts to present a new diplomatic program vis-a-vis Iran when the G7 meets in France on August 24.

“On Iran, France speaks with total sovereignty… France requires no authorization to do so,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian retorted. France, like Germany and Britain, does not intend to participate in the naval alliance Trump announced would be established to prevent possible attacks by Iran on shipping in the Persian Gulf.

This tension between Europe and the United States, and efforts to breathe new life into a diplomatic process, still does not ensure Iran a way out of its economic crisis. But in these troubled times, Iranians can at least enjoy the musical “The Sound of Music” which is now being performed on the stage of the Vahdat Hall in Teheran.

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