(CNSNews.com) – As fans around the world remembered Muhammad Ali at the weekend, a member of Tehran’s city council suggested that a street in the Iranian capital be named after the American boxing legend, a convert to Islam who during a 1993 trip to Iran was quoted as calling the Islamic republic “the greatest.”
Addressing a meeting of the city council, Eqbal Shakeri described Ali as a “symbol of resistance to racism and U.S. imperialistic policies in the Vietnam War,” the IRNA state news agency reported – a reference to Ali’s refusal to be conscripted into the military in the 1960s in opposition to the war.
Shakeri, head of the city council’s civil committee, is a member of the hard line “principalist” faction that controls the council by a slim majority. The council has renamed streets after Westerners before, sometimes with an apparent political motivation.
Ali, the three-time world heavyweight champion, died Friday aged 74 after a long battle with Parkinson’s syndrome.
As the world reacted to news of his death, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted, “May the Almighty receive Muhammad Ali – The Greatest in the ring and in the fight for justice, dignity and peace – in His infinite mercy.”
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari described Ali as a “Pahlevian” – an ancient Persian title of honor still awarded today to wrestling champions – and said he would remain “a constant reminder of negation of Imperialism and warmongering activities,” Fars news agency reported in a profile article.
Absent from the profile was any mention of the fact Ali visited Iran in 1993, when he campaigned for an exchange of soldiers still held captive after the Iran-Iraq war.
Ali laid a wreath at the tomb of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, who had died four years earlier, and joined worshipers at Tehran University for prayers.
Over the years Ali on several occasion tried to win the release of American hostages held by Iran or its proxies, although without evident success:
--After 52 American diplomats, embassy staffers and others were taken hostage during the 1979 Islamic revolution and held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Ali was reported to have offered himself in exchange for them. (The hostages were ultimately held for 444 days before being released on Jan. 20, 1981, the day President Reagan was sworn in.)
--In 1985, Ali traveled to Lebanon in a bid to win freedom for four Americans held captive by Shi’ite Hezbollah fundamentalists loyal to Iran – diplomat (later confirmed to have been CIA station chief) William Buckley, Protestant pastor Benjamin Weir, Roman Catholic priest Lawrence Jenco and American University staffer Peter Kilburn. “We ask the kidnappers to be merciful and compassionate, not to kill the hostages,” the AAP quoted him as saying upon arrival in Beirut.
The mission was futile. Weir was freed later that year and Jenco a year later, while Kilburn was murdered in 1986. Buckley, after enduring torture, was held for another six years before his body was found dumped near Beirut airport in late 1991.
--In 2011, Ali called on Iran to free two American hikers who had been charged with espionage after they and a third American strayed into Iran from the Iraqi region of Kurdistan in 2009.
Iran had freed Sarah Shourd after 14 months on “humanitarian grounds” due to ill health, but Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer remained incarcerated.
In a letter purportedly sent to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Feb. 2011, Ali – describing himself as “your brother in Islam” – praised his “compassion” for releasing Shourd and called for “the same mercy and compassion” towards the other two.
“My last visit to Tehran was some years ago but I remember it as if it were yesterday. The people were so kind and beautiful,” Ali reportedly wrote. “Most Americans don’t know how warm and welcoming the Iranian people can be. One day, I hope I am able to return to Tehran to stand, greet and be among my Iranian brothers and sisters once again.”
Fattal and Bauer were sentenced that August to eight years’ imprisonment, but released a month later. On their return they thanked Ali and several others (including the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez) for their efforts to secure their freedom.
--In March 2015, Ali called on Iran to release Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who was being held on charges of espionage.
“It is my great hope that the government and judiciary of Iran will end the prolonged detention of journalist Jason Rezaian and provide him with access to all his legal options,” Ali said in a statement. “During his time as the Washington Post bureau chief in Tehran, Jason used his gift of writing and intimate knowledge of the country to share the stories of the people and culture of Iran to the world.”
Rezaian was convicted seven months later, but eventually freed last January, along with pastor Saeed Abedini and former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati.
Changing street names
The stated authorities of the Tehran city council include “approving names of streets, squares, avenues, alleys and neighborhoods in cities and changing those names.”
After the revolution, streets named after American presidents – including Kennedy Square, Eisenhower Avenue and Roosevelt Avenue – were changed.
In the 1980s, Churchill Boulevard in the capital was renamed in honor of Irish Republican Army hunger-striker Bobby Sands, who died in prison in 1981. The move was evidently aimed at embarrassing Britain, whose embassy was located there.
In 2011 Tehran renamed a street in honor of Rachel Corrie, an American pro-Palestinian activist killed when struck by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza in 2003.
And last January, the city council approved calls to rename a street after Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, a prominent Shi’a cleric executed by Saudi Arabia. (Some reports said the foreign ministry demanded that the council decision be overturned, as it sought to defuse a serious diplomatic spat with the Sunni kingdom.)