A pawn in their gameA pawn in their game

Iran bans teen chess player for competing against an Israeli

Borna Derakhshani’s sister Dorsa also forbidden from representing the country over refusal to wear a hijab

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

An illustrative photo of a chess board (photo credit:  Martin Lopatka/Flickr/CC BY-SA)
An illustrative photo of a chess board (photo credit: Martin Lopatka/Flickr/CC BY-SA)

Iran has banned a 15-year-old boy from playing with its national chess team and in domestic tournaments because he competed against an Israeli.

Borna Derakhshani faced off against Israel’s Alexander Huzman in the first round of the Gibraltar Chess Festival, which took place from January 23 to February 2.

Huzman defeated the Iranian, but the head of Iran’s chess foundation, Mehrdad Pahlevanzadeh, compounded Derakhshani’s loss by imposing the ban on Monday.

“Unfortunately, what shouldn’t have happened has happened. Our national interests have priority over everything,” Pahlevanzadeh said. He added that those who infringe upon Iran’s “ideals and principles” would be shown “no leniency.”

Iran does not recognize the State of Israel and forbids its athletes from competing against Israelis. In the past, Iranians have cited illnesses or injury to avoid facing Israeli opponents.

Last year, an Iranian chess grandmaster withdrew from a match against an Israeli at a Basel tournament in order to reject “the existence of the Zionist state.”

But pulling out from competition has its risks. In 2011, one Iranian chess player was expelled from a tournament in Corsica after refusing to play against an Israeli.

“Politics has no place in competition at this level,” the tournament organizer stated at the time.

Borna is not the only Derakhshani sibling to face trouble with the Iranian chess foundation. His sister Dorsa was also banned from representing the country with the national team and from competing in domestic tournaments for not wearing a hijab head covering while competing at the same Gibraltar tournament.

To save face, the country’s chess foundation chief said the siblings were not actually representing Iran at the tournament, but rather had attended independently.

Darya Safai, an Iranian exile and gender equality advocate, took to social media to defend the Derakhshani siblings, calling the two “national heroes” in separate posts.

Iran is currently hosting the 2017 women’s world chess championship in Tehran, but the competition has been clouded by criticism and boycott calls due to its requirement that all women wear a hijab.

Along with several other players, US champion Nazí Paikidze has boycotted the tournament, saying, “I will not wear a hijab and support women’s oppression. Even if it means missing one of the most important competitions of my career.”

Still, not all competitors agree with Paikidze’s stance. Iranian grandmaster and 2015 Asian Continental Championship winner Mitra Hejazipour said that boycotts would undermine a hard-fought campaign to promote female sports in Iran.

“It’s not right to call for a boycott. These games are important for women in Iran; it’s an opportunity for us to show our strength,” she said.

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