By Nike Ching
A U.S. official says women are the force behind the massive protests in Iran, and that the United States is unaware of whether Iranian Olympic athlete Kimia Alizadeh is seeking asylum in the U.S.
Alizadeh, Iran’s only female Olympic medalist, said earlier this week on social media that she has permanently left Iran because she had had enough of being used by its authorities for political purposes.
“I don’t know if she is seeking asylum so I can’t speak to that,” Brian Hook, U.S. Special Representative for Iran, said Friday when asked by VOA if the U.S. would welcome Alizadeh if she seeks asylum in the United States.
“Much of the strength and the energy in the anti-regime protests are being led by Iranian women,” Hook said, adding he believes “many more Iranian women would like to leave the oppression that this regime presents to them.”
Iran was shocked when Alizadeh announced her defection earlier this week.
Iranian politician Abdolkarim Hosseinzadeh accused “incompetent officials” of allowing Iran’s “human capital to flee,” according to media reports.
A deputy Iranian sports minister, Mahin Farhadizadeh, reportedly told the news agency ISNA that Alizadeh defected to pursue her education “in physiotherapy,” according to a New York Post report.
Friday, Shohreh Bayat, an Iranian chess referee who is in Russia for the Women’s World Chess Championship, told Reuters she does not want to return home out of fear for her safety. Bayat has been accused of violating her nation’s Islamic dress code while adjudicating a women’s tournament.
Last week, protests erupted across Iran after a period of increasing tensions between Washington and Tehran. The U.S. killed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 2, and Iran responded Jan. 8 by launching an airstrike from Tehran against an Iraqi base that housed U.S. military. Shortly after, a Ukrainian International Airline Boeing 737 taking off from Tehran’s airport crashed, killing all 176 people on board. Three days later, Iran admitted to mistakenly shooting down the airplane, which led to street protests in Tehran and several other Iranian cities.
The 21-year-old Alizadeh, who won a bronze medal in taekwondo at the 2016 Rio Olympics, did not reveal her whereabouts but in the past has said she wants to settle in the Netherlands.
“I am one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran with whom they have been playing for years,” she wrote on social media.
In a tweet, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said “#KimiaAlizadeh, Iran’s only female Olympic medalist, has rejected the regime’s oppression of women. She has defected for a life of security, happiness, and freedom. #Iran will continue to lose more strong women unless it learns to empower and support them.”
Western media had credited the taekwondo medalist with “emboldening Iranian girls and women to push the boundaries of personal freedom.”
In December, Alireza Firouzja, Iran’s top-rated chess champion, said he would not play for Iran in an upcoming tournament and is ready to renounce his citizenship because of a ban on competing against Israeli players.
Saeid Mollaei, an Iranian judo world champion, left the country for Germany last fall and sought asylum. Mollaei said he had been pressured to deliberately lose in the semifinals at the 2019 World Judo Championships in Tokyo to avoid facing Israelis.