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Iranians Party in French Town

June 21, 1998

LYON, France (AP) _ As Iranians partied on the streets before Sunday’s World Cup game with the United States, dissidents charged that thousands more who wanted to come were turned away at the border by French authorities giving in to pressure from Tehran.

Iranian resistance leaders said France had also allowed in Tehran government secret police to scour the crowd for exiles they consider to be enemies.

France ``let in the torturers but kept out the victims,″ said Farzin Hashemi, spokesman for the Mujahedeen Khalq, a resistance group operating abroad.

He said Moslem Filabi, a national sports hero who competed in three Olympics on the wrestling team, was refused a visa to watch Iran play.

Independently, Iranians living in Germany said their group of 200 was turned back at the French border with Belgium. At the Place Bellecour in Lyon, men identified by exiles as government agents filmed joyful Iranians warming up for the big game.

``Is this the meaning of the claim that football is not political?″ Mohammad Mohadessin, Mujahedeen Khalq foreign affairs chairman, asked rhetorically at a crowded news conference. ``It seems that so long as football serves the interests of the murderous mullahs in Iran, it can be political.″

Mohadessin accused the French government of trying to gain influence with Iran by allowing Revolutionary Guards to identify dissidents so they could be arrested as hooligans.

``They are making a mistake to cast their lot with the mullahs, who are about to fall,″ he said, comparing the situation to French support for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, swept out in the early 1980s by the Islamic revolution.

In the streets of Lyon, however, politics took second place to partying.

Iranians celebrated in the Place Bellecour, working themselves up to a happy frenzy for their World Cup match with the United States, and they were joined by Americans whose curiosity overrode the friendly rivalry.

Police watched carefully for any signs of trouble, but nothing suggested politics would mar the big game.

Feri Eftekhari, a London surgeon in a white truck full of Iran T-shirts, handed them out to anyone, Americans included, who wanted to join the party.

``Nothing but sports could do this,″ he said, looking at a Rhone River bridge where U.S. and Iranian flags snapped side-by-side in the wind. ``Governments want to make something political of this match, but it is only about people getting along.″

American fans shared his sentiments.

Douglas Logan, a New Yorker who is commissioner of Major League Soccer, alighted from a special train Saturday with 350 Americans in subdued dress. Except for the odd American flag hat, they might have coming to sample Lyon’s fabled restaurants.

``I think too much has been made of the political aspects,″ Logan said. ``There is enough pressure already on these kids. This is an athletic event.″

But French police were taking no chances. Discreet reinforcements were ready in case of demonstrations. About a half million Iranians live in Europe within easy driving distance of Lyon. Other organizations might also seize the occasion.

On Saturday, 50 members of the Association for Women’s Rights Against Fundamentalism marched through downtown. They paused every few minutes to lie in the street and cover themselves with black chadors to protest what they said was tyranny in Iran.

But despite the bitter rivalry between their governments, American and Iranian fans were in a relaxed mood before a game that might take the winner past the first World Cup round.

Saied Nili, a telecommunications consultant with U.S. West in England, unloaded the car that brought him and three other Iranians to town. He laughed at the suggestion of disturbances.

``If you want trouble, you’ll have to go see the English, or the Dutch, one of those civilized European countries,″ he said. ``We’ll give you carnival.″

His friend, who preferred to be named only as Feridoon, added, ``It’ll be very friendly. What the two governments couldn’t do in 10 years, the two nations will fix.″

James Appleby, a 33-year-old Washington, D.C., pharmacist and self-confessed soccer addict, echoed that thought.

``It’s unfair to the team to put such pressure on them,″ he said. ``Their careers are at stake. If they do well, they’ll get contracts with European clubs. We should keep politics out of it.″

For most Iranians, the important thing was less the opponent than the fact that they were there at all. They were the last to qualify, squeaking past Australia, for their first World Cup competition since 1978.

``This gives the world a chance to see another side of Iran, and it gives us a chance to get together,″ Dr. Eftekhari said. Iranians were coming from as far away as Australia.

``We’re scattered around the world,″ he said. ``This is when we can get together, sing a song, and have some love for each other.″

Farzin Hashemi, president of an umbrella group called the International Council of Resistance of Iran, took the occasion to condemn the Islamic leadership in Iran.

``The huge crowds of people waving flags will be supporting the players and the team and their culture, not the government,″ Hashemi said. ``It is important to make that distinction.″

Leaders in Tehran wanted badly to win, he added, but in the end it is only a soccer game. ``The concept that this is like ping-pong diplomacy with China is just an illusion. Change can only come from within Iran.″

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