It was on, perhaps, the fifth occasion that the tournament hall was plunged into darkness at the Asian Cities chess championship in Tehran earlier this year that a daring, heterodox thought entered my head: could it be possible that when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Iran needs nuclear power for civilian purposes he might be telling the truth?
I was greatly touched by the warmth and friendliness of ordinary Iranians. However, there were a couple of jarring notes amid all the goodwill. One of the girls on the national team invited me to her home for dinner, to which I agreed. It turned out that in order to take up her invitation I had to have the permission of both the federation and the religious police.
My team comprised two men (Ehsan Ghaem Maghami and Elshan Moradiabadi) and a woman (Atousa Pourkashiyan). Realistically we had little chance of competing successfully against the superpowers of India and China, but against the others we could hope. Sadly Atousa, who was within a whisker of success, blew the bronze with an unexpected last-round defeat. How should one comfort a distraught 18-year-old girl when it is expressly forbidden to shake hands, let alone hug her? Such are the problems of coaching Iran. Nevertheless, after recovering from these individual setbacks and by routing the strong Qatari team in the final round of the team event, we took a bronze – a great result.
In my report of the event, I stressed a vital and obvious point: if women are to reach their full potential, they have to be allowed to participate against the best opposition, which in chess means men. Within a week of this report having been submitted, the Iranian minister of sport had agreed to an unprecedented change in regulations. While it would be inaccurate for me to claim full responsibility for this seismic shift, it would, perhaps, be fair to say that I acted as a catalyst.
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The Iranian Bronze medal team at the Asian Games in Doha. From the left is the Iranian FIDE delegate Mehrdad Pahlevanzadeh, national team trainer GM Nigel Short, Iranian Chess Federation President Dr. Mohammad Ebrahim Maddahi, Elshan Moradiabadi, Ehsan Ghaem Maghami, Captain IM Khosrow Harandi and Atousa Pourkashiyan.
First ever Iranian Grandmaster and six times champion of Iran Ehsan Ghaem Maghami
Elshan Moradiabadi, who in the January FIDE list is Iran's strongest GM (at 2569), could not participate in the championship because he was taking his exams in chemistry and engineering at Sharif University, the best-known university in Iran.
19-year-old Atousa Pourkashiyan – an extraordinary Iranian talent
15-year-old Mitra Hejazipour, former silver medalist in the World U10 championship
WFM Shirin Navabi, former Iran Women Chess Champion
Super-talent Ghazal Hakimifard, 13, will become queen of Iranian chess very soon!
See also ChessBase report: Iran emerges as a chess nation