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A Litmus Test for Iran: Sports and Air Transport

Sports and air transport are likely to serve as indicators of whether Iran has the flexibility to become a major node in an increasingly globalized world. At the core of Iranian efforts to become a global sports and airline hub will be its willingness to relax strict gender segregation, dress codes and its ban on alcohol.

How Iran deals with the issues of women’s sporting rights, likely demands for relaxed restrictions at its international airports and on board its airlines will also serve as an indicator of how flexible Iranian hardliners, the main benefactors of the lifting of international sanctions, will be.

The issue of gender segregation at sporting events has already arisen as a result of Iran’s hosting two international volleyball tournaments this year. Demands for relaxed restrictions in air transportation will surface as Iran prepares to turn Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport and state-owned Iran Air into global hubs that compete with the airports and airlines in other Middle East countries.

Iranian responses to criticism by human rights groups of banning women holds out hope that Iran could prove more flexible than many expected it to be. Human Rights Watch quotes executives of the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) as saying after a meeting with Iranian sports and youth minister Mahmoud Goudarzi, that progress was possible on the “key aim…of families being able to attend volleyball matches.”

Similarly, FIVB general director Fabio Azevedo told Inside the Games that “discussions are still ongoing and we are hoping for a positive outcome ahead of the FIVB World Tour open event on (Iran’s) Kish Island,” which is scheduled to kick off on February 15.

Granting women the right to attend the Kish Island event would have great symbolic significance given that volleyball was the last sport brought under the control of Iranian hardliners when they pushed through the ban on women in 2012. Volleyball had been one of the few male sporting events accessible to women.

However, based on past experience, Human Rights Watch takes the prospects of a reversal of the ban with a grain of salt. “Hopeful? That is not enough. Iran promised last June that female fans could attend matches, only to renege and threaten them before the tournament, dashing the hopes of women waiting to return to stadiums,” said the group’s Minky Worden.

Ms. Worden’s skepticism is reinforced by the fact that caving in to international pressure in advance of this month’s elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the council that elect’s Iran’s spiritual leader, may prove difficult. The bulk of reformist candidates for both councils did not pass muster and were disqualified.

On the air transport front, Iran signaled its intention to become a major transportation hub with the signing of a $27 billion agreement with Airbus for the purchase of 118 jets which included Airbus A380s that are part of the Gulf airlines’ fleets. Contracts have also been signed to expand Tehran’s international airport. “Certainly this is our historical position: we have always been a centre for communications in the region,” Iranian transport minister Abbas Akhouni told Reuters. Iranian Air chairman Farhad Parvaresh noted that “we used to be a very important airline in the region and globally, so of course we want to play our role fully once again.”

To do so, Iran, despite a domestic passenger market that is expected to grow exponentially, will have to match Gulf and Turkish airlines in their willingness not to enforce Islamic law as it relates to gender interaction, dress codes, and alcohol. The degree to which this is already a debate, even among hardliners, is reflected in criticism that the Airbus deal has diverted cash from other social and economic priorities.

The outcome of the debate is likely to say much about Iran’s future. Virtually all commercial agreements like the Iran Air deal signed since the lifting of the sanctions have been with state-owned conglomerates with close ties to pension funds and other government agencies such as the Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is widely seen as a pillar of hardline factions in Iran. The deals also include a $2 billion one with an Italian steel producer and a $439 million agreement with Peugeot.

Both sports and Iran’s air transport ambitions will put to the test the Islamic republic’s strategy to make state-owned companies and state-controlled associations the primary beneficiary of the lifting of the sanctions in the belief that this will allow limitations to Western influences that could come with foreign investment.

“Investments through our big enterprises can be controlled,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, an analyst with close ties to the government, in an interview with The New York Times. Ruling out a complete opening of the Iranian market, Mr. Taraghi argued that “that would provide leverage to Western governments and investors, leverage they would use to influence our politics, culture and society.”

Ultimately, what is likely to determine the outcome of the debate, is what price Iran is willing to pay in terms of reigning in its ambitions to uphold its principles. Iran has demonstrated its ability to do so with its resilience during the years when it was subjected to punitive sanctions.

Nonetheless, it was ultimately willing to negotiate a nuclear deal, even if it drove a hard bargain.

Market forces and the choices Iran makes will determine whether it emerges as a competitive regional transportation hub. When it comes to sports, the onus will be on international sports federations if Iran does not take a first step by lifting the ban on women attending male volleyball matches. A failure by Iran to do so, would signal that the price for flouting international rules isn’t yet high enough.