(Reuters) - Iran has been banned indefinitely from international judo competition until it can give strong guarantees that its athletes will be allowed to face Israelis, the International Judo Federation (IJF) has said.
The IJF decision follows a protective suspension imposed on the Iran Judo Federation last month for putting pressure on one of its fighters to withdraw from the world championships to avoid facing an Israeli opponent.
Iran has 21 days to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Saeid Mollaei was pressured by Iranian authorities to drop out of his quarter-final and semi-final bouts at the Aug. 25-Sept. 1 worlds in Tokyo to avoid a potential final against Israel’s Sagi Muki, the IJF said.
The 2018 world champion, who is in hiding in Germany, has refused to return to Iran over fears for his safety.
The Iran Judo Federation has denied instructing Mollaei to withdraw from competing.
“Suspending the Iran Judo Federation was a cruel act that we see just as another sanction,” federation head Arash Miresmaeili was quoted as saying by semi-official news agency ISNA.
Iran has faced renewed U.S. sanctions aimed at strangling its economy after Washington last year withdrew from Tehran’s 2015 nuclear accord.
“We will not back off an inch from (Iran’s) position and we will stand against this threat with full force,” Miresmaeili added.
Although Iran has never won an Olympic judo medal, their athletes were viewed as strong contenders at next year’s Tokyo Games.
The ban, however, puts a question mark over their participation because qualifying depends mainly on world ranking points earned in IJF events.
This is not the first time athletes from Arab nations or Iran have been told to pull out or refuse to compete with Israeli competitors in international events.
At the 2004 Athens Olympics, then Iranian world champion Miresmaeili refused to fight Israeli judoka Ehud Vaks.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly praised athletes who have refused to face opponents from Israel.
Since its Islamic Revolution in 1979 Iran has refused to recognize Israel.
Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru, additional reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Paul Tait and Ed Osmond