TEHRAN — An Iranian crowd burst into cheers Tuesday when U.S. wrestlers carried the Stars and Stripes into an international meet--marking what is believed to be the first time in 18 years that the American flag was displayed with honor rather than hatred in this capital.
The U.S. flag, burned and trampled again and again here since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, received more applause than any of the other 16 national banners, save that of the host nation.
Wrestlers on the five-member U.S. team carrying the flag waved back enthusiastically.
"I never know what to expect wherever I go, but more so here because other countries don't call us 'Great Satan,' " said wrestler Melvin Douglas, a 1993 world champion. "But . . . I'm not a Satan. I'm a sportsman."
The cheers, said coach Joe Seay, "felt very good."
"But what was very special is that they had our flag. We had brought our own flag, but we had no need for it, because they had one already for us," Seay said. "That showed caring."
The Americans, and the Iranian organizers, have stressed the athletics--rather than the diplomacy--involved in the landmark visit.
The possibility that ties might be restored between Iran and the United States, however, has been raised by the presence of the wrestlers, the most closely watched Americans in Tehran since militant Iranian students released U.S. Embassy hostages in 1981 after holding them captive for more than a year.
The U.S. team's arrival came six weeks after Iranian President Mohammad Khatami spoke on CNN about opening the door to cultural and sports exchanges between the two nations. Even the moderate Khatami, however, has said he sees no need for diplomatic ties.
Iran's hard-line spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Tuesday again called the United States the "Great Satan" while criticizing the U.S. military buildup in the Gulf.