PARIS, June 9 (Reuters) - Exiled Iranian soccer players said on Tuesday that Tehran should not be allowed to use the country's presence at the World Cup to build diplomatic bridges.
Iran's World Cup campaign includes a match against arch-foe the United States in Lyon on June 21. Some analysts have drawn comparisons with the 1970s, when relations between Washington and Communist China were fostered by ``ping-pong'' diplomacy involving an exchange of table-tennis teams.
``Such a perception with regard to the mullahs is fundamentally flawed,'' said Hassan Nayeb Agha, a member of the 1978 Iranian World Cup team.
``Experience shows that...the mullahs are totally incapable of reform and can only survive through repression and the export of terrorism,'' he added.
He was speaking at a news conference organised by exiled opposition group the National Council for Iranian Resistance, which is based in France.
The council is affiliated to the Iraq-based Mujahideen Khalq, which claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Tehran courthouse in which three people were killed last week.
Iran's religious leadership described the country's qualification for the World Cup as a political victory for Islam over its enemies in the West. Washington brands Iran a ``rogue state'' and has sought to isolate it wil unilateral sanctions.
Nayeb Agha and fellow former Iranian soccer players Bahram Mavedat and Asghar Adibi accused Tehran of executing former national team captain Habib Khabiri in 1984. They said he was executed along with 40 other Mujahideen members after being imprisoned on political grounds.
Mavedat accused the religious leadership of exploiting the World Cup for propaganda purposes, comparing it to the way Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler used the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936.
France has long been a key centre for Iranian exiles and a number of opponents of the Iranian government have been killed here. They include Shapour Bakhtiar, the ousted shah's last prime minister, who was stabbed to death in Paris in 1991.
The Iranian players, who qualified for the World Cup with victory in a play-off over Australia last November, arrived in France on Monday. Their hotel near the town of Saint Etienne in eastern France has been closed off amid tight security.
``The players here are treated like prisoners,'' said Adibi, alleging that
Iran had given its World Cup tickets to secret police officials who were shadowing the team's every move.
The former players accused Tehran of virtually destroying Iranian sport in the years after the 1979 revolution and only allowing soccer to develop again when they realised it was too popular to stamp out.
They said there could be an adverse public reaction if Iran flopped at the World Cup, and especially if it lost to the United States.
``The people will react to a defeat and it will have a political element to it. The Iranians know why their sport has gone into decline,'' said Mavedat.