Sunday, two nations that have considered each other enemies for most of the past two decades – the United States and Iran – met on the soccer field in a World Cup match.
For years, policymakers in both Washington and Tehran formulated plans and strategies for victory on the battlefield, preparing for a possible armed conflict between the two nations. Sunday, the battlefield was a soccer stadium and the only thing destroyed was the U.S. team’s chance of advancing to the second round of the tournament. The match was just a soccer game, but the coming together of the two nations at a common event is a positive step toward repairing the countries’ broken relationship.
The last time Iranians and Americans shared the world stage was 1979, when American embassy employees were held hostage in Iran after the Iranian revolution. After the hostage crisis, Americans saw Iranians as religious fanatics and unrepentant terrorists. In Iran, Americans were constantly demonized as the “Great Satan” by the ayatollahs.
It was the luck of the draw that pitted the two teams against each other on the soccer field, but observers see this event as more than just a game. For the past year, relations between the United States and Iran have been thawing bit by bit. Some view this match as a variation of the “ping-pong diplomacy” that led to the opening of relations between the United States and China several decades ago. Others maintain that this was just a game, not a political event. Regardless of which side is correct, relations between the two nations have been improving.
Several years ago, Iranians and Americans may not have mutually participated in any sort of event, even a soccer game. Sunday’s match – a 2-1 Iran victory – will not erase two decades of antagonism, but it is another step taken on the path to normal relations between the United States and Iran.