For years, their athletes have managed to avoid Israeli opponents, but Iran’s suspension from international judo competition is a wake-up call for the Islamic republic ahead of the 2020 Olympics.

The International Judo Federation this week announced its decision to confirm a provisional ban on Iran over their refusal to allow their fighters to face Israeli judokas.

The verdict came after an investigation was launched into an incident during the 2019 World Championships in Tokyo at the end of August.

Iran’s Saeid Mollaei, defending his title in the -81kg class, was defeated in the semi-final and also went on to lose his third-place bout.

At the end of the tournament, the 27-year-old – who has not returned to Iran – said he had been ordered to throw the semi-final rather than risk facing an Israeli in the final.

The Israeli, Sagi Muki, went on to win gold.

The IJF, which has backed Mollaei, demanded the Iranian judo federation “give strong guarantees and prove that they will respect the IJF statutes and accept that their athletes fight against Israeli athletes”.

‘Blatant betrayal’

The head of the Iranian federation, Arash Miresmaeili, denounced the ban as a “cruel and a blatant betrayal” based on “false claims”, according to state news agency IRNA.

But just as world football’s governing body FIFA is less willing to see women banned from Iranian stadiums, so too is the IJF less inclined to tolerate Iranian judokas refusing to take on Israelis.

Judo is one of Iran’s sporting strengths and the ban comes as a blow just nine months ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

According to a source close to the case, the issue of boycotts of Israel was on the agenda of an International Olympic Committee meeting in Lausanne earlier this month.

“We have been aware [of the problem] from the first moment and, within the athletes commission, we will be discussing it very shortly to make sure we are supporting whatever we can support,” Danka Bartekova, a Slovak member of the IOC, told AFP late last month.

Iran does not recognise Israel and support for the Palestinian cause has been a constant feature of its foreign policy since the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Rather than openly refusing to face Israeli athletes or teams – which would go against rules – Iranian athletes have managed to lose, get disqualified or provide medical certificates saying they are unable to compete.

Those who risk competing against Israelis are punished.

This is what happened in 2017 to Masoud Shojaei, the then captain of Iran’s national football team.

Shojaei was banned for life for playing for his then Greek club against Maccabi Tel-Aviv, before being allowed back into the squad ahead of the 2018 World Cup.

But the Iranian athletes who do manage to avoid Israeli opponents are feted as “heroes” at home for the “sacrifice” they have made.

The issue is divisive in Iran, especially with Israelis increasingly winning places on the podium in judo and taekwondo, another discipline in which Iran is a traditional force.

In early 2018, Iran’s wrestling federation chief Rasoul Khadem resigned after criticising the suspension of fighter Alireza Karimi Mashianai and his coach who ordered him to lose to avoid an Israeli in the next round.

At the time, Khadem called on Iran’s political authorities to “propose solutions” because “if we must continue the policy of not meeting athletes of the Zionist regime, the responsibility should not fall on the shoulders of the coach and the athlete”.

Following the judo federation’s suspension, supporters and detractors of the official line crossed swords on Twitter.

“I hope the [strategy of losing to avoid Israelis] is finally stopped in other disciplines so the efforts of athletes are not flouted” by officials, wrote Sepehr Khorami, a journalist at pro-reform daily Shargh.

Ultra-conservative MP Alireza Zakani said “the suspension of the dear Iranian judokas will be in vain” and that “in the near future, the free peoples of the planet will bow as a sign of respect”.