Muhammad Ali’s civil disobedience isn’t only remembered in the United States, but in Iran as well. Over the weekend, as fans commemorated Ali, who died at 74, Tehran’s city council suggested a street in the Iranian capital be named after the three-time world heavyweight champion. Despite Ali’s Sunni Muslim background, the Shiite majority Islamic Republic reveres him.
Eqbal Shakeri, the head of Tehran’s city council described Ali as a “symbol of resistance to racism and US imperialistic policies in the Vietnam War,” the Islamic Republic News Agency state news agency reported.
In Ali’s lifetime, he only took one trip to Iran in 1993, when he negotiated the exchange of soldiers still held captive after the Iran-Iraq war. As an independent goodwill ambassador in Iran, Ali laid a wreath at the tomb of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei and joined worshipers at Tehran University for prayers.
That same year, IRNA quoted him as saying “I have been to many countries and Iran is the greatest.” He had also told Iranians that “most Americans don’t know how warm and welcoming the Iranian people can be.”
In years to come, Ali would advocate for the release of US hostages in Iran. In a 2011 letter, he directly wrote to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for the release of two captured hikers, Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer. He offered to travel to Iran if his presence would help release the unjustly imprisoned hikers.
Despite the toll Parkinson’s evidently took on his health, the former world champion continued to immerse himself in world affairs, especially when concerning Iran.
Most recently, he advocated for the release of Jason Rezaian, Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent, who was held captive in Iran for almost two years following accusations of espionage and other charges. In Rezaian’s column for the Washington Post, he recalls that his wife visited him in the Iranian prison the day before his 39th birthday, his “low point.” When she told him that Muhummad Ali had publicly acknowledged for his release, he cried the “happiest tears” of his captivity and “felt strong for the first time in months.”
In an interview with CNN’s Jim Sciutto, Rezaian says that Ali’s efforts on his behalf improved his treatment in prison by Iranian prison guards. He was released January of 2016. Ali died on Saturday after his 32-year bout with Parkinson’s disease. “He was not only a famous champion in the area of boxing, but also a hero which is a title in Iranian culture and tradition given to somebody who considers moral issues through the sports games,” Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari said.