U.S.-Iran Soccer Match More Than a Sporting Event
By EDWARD J. BOYER, Times Staff Writer

     The buzz building for weeks has reached a crescendo of anticipation over kabobs, rice and shirazi salads in West Los Angeles restaurants and in the aisles of tony Beverly Hills boutiques.
     Among Iranian students, shopkeepers, professionals and businessmen from the West San Fernando Valley to Irvine, Santa Ana and other Orange County communities, conversations inevitably turned this week to what some have taken to calling the "Diplomacy Bowl": Sunday's soccer match between the U.S. and Iranian national teams at the Rose Bowl.
     "The game is being talked about everywhere, in homes and among families," said journalist Homa Sarshar.
     Her weekly television show and articles in local Iranian newspapers reach a large segment of Southern California's estimated 600,000 Iranians--a concentration so heavy on the Westside that some have dubbed the area "Tehrangeles."
     For Sarshar, the game is much more than a sporting event.
     "It's political," she said. "It is a means being used by the Islamic Republic of Iran for rapprochement with the United States."
     And the United States is using it for the same purpose, she said.
     In that sense the match echoes the Ping-Pong diplomacy of the early 1970s, when a table tennis team from the People's Republic of China toured this country, helping to create a thaw in Sino-American relations.
     Those matches, in part, paved the way for President Richard Nixon's historic trip to China and the normalization of relations between the two countries.
     Iranians in Southern California are very much aware of the political implications of Sunday's game, but that realization has not diminished excitement surrounding the event.
     "No American sporting event has ever made me this excited," said Niloufar Lavian, 23, as she and her friend Tanaz Shakeri sipped tea in the Javan Restaurant in West Los Angeles. "I'm American but I still love my mother country."
     Beverly Hills psychologist Nanaz Pirnia is caught in a similar bind.
     "I'm torn between two lovers now," she said. "Iran and America are both my countries."
     At her Music Gallery on Santa Monica Boulevard, Neda Matinfar has sold hundreds of T-shirts commemorating the event. Sohrab Rostamian is passing out flags with the Stars and Stripes on one side and the green, white and red Iranian flag on the other at his Nashr-E Ketab Bookstore on Westwood Boulevard.
     But those are not the flags that fly in Iran today. They have a lion, sword and the sun on the middle white panel that flew before the revolution that ousted Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979. The new Iranian flag has an Islamic symbol in that spot.
     Still, Iranians hope Sunday's match may be the first step toward easing tensions between their native and adopted homelands.
     "I am 100% against the regime in Iran, but my hope is that this game will bring people together," said Shanaz Torbati, another diner at Javan.
     A relaxation of tensions would make travel easier between the two countries, Iranians say, enabling them to visit relatives or to take their children to a country some of them have never seen.
     "Maybe it will be easier to go back, or easier for Iranians to come here," said Alireza Morovati, president of the Radio Voice of Iran in Santa Monica.
     Morovati is also concerned about Iran's image in countries around the world.
     "In the eyes of the world, they call Iran a terrorist state," he said. "We are not terrorists."
     That may be a tough image to sell to many Americans who still have all too vivid memories of revolutionaries storming the American Embassy in Tehran and parading blindfolded U.S. hostages through angry mobs.
     "I never blame my American friends for feeling sort of funny about Iran and Iranians," said psychologist Pirnia. She said Iran has always received bad press, "stories about how destructive Iranians have been to others and to themselves."
     When Mohammad Khatami was elected Iran's president two years ago, some observers predicted that his election would loosen the iron grip mullahs, the clerics who rule Iran, had exercised since the revolution brought the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power.
     In the Iranian community here, Khatami has severe critics who say wholesale executions and discrimination against women and religious minorities have continued under his leadership.
     Some of those critics plan to protest against Khatami's government on Sunday, but they insist that their demonstration will not be disruptive. And, they emphasize even more, the protest is in no way directed at the Iranian team.
     "Iranians will stand for the U.S. national anthem but will sit down during the anthem for the Islamic Republic," said Jimmy Sedghi, a business consultant. "Then they will sing 'O, Iran,' a patriotic song."
     That song has been around for 50 years, said Sarshar, and it "has been used as a weapon to oppose the regime. The song is a uniting factor between dissidents here and there."
     In a gesture reminiscent of American sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the demonstrators will wear black gloves on their right hands and raise their clenched fists "to show opposition to the mullahs," Sedghi said.
     But Sedghi and other critics of Iran's government distinguish between the government and the Iranian people. They fully support the team, he said.