Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII) – 2007-08-25 22:57:29
American People’s Peace Delegation to Iran:
Three hundred members of Revolutionary Guards treated us like long-lost relatives
Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII)
The People’s Peace Delegation to Iran was a group of five anti-war activists from the United States who traveled through Iran from July 20 — 30 to promote peace and friendship between the peoples of our two countries. The delegation was cosponsored by the Virginia Anti-War Network (VAWN), an association of 22 peace and justice organizations in the US state of Virginia; and The Richmond Defender, a bimonthly, all-volunteer newspaper with a circulation of 15,000 serving predominantly working-class, African-American communities in Virginia. Abbas Edalat of CASMII talked to Phil Wilayto, a founding member of VAWN and the organizer of the People’s Peace Delegation to Iran.
(August 9, 2007) — The members of People’s Peace Delegation to Iran were
• Art Marburg, 54, a retired factory worker and cabinet maker from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who is a former union official and a lifelong peace and justice activist;
• Tyla Matteson, a retired school teacher from Richmond who is an active member of VAWN and also the Sierra Club, an environmental organization;
• Geoff Millard, 26, a Web site reporter in Washington, DC, who is president of the Washington, DC, chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War;
• Tom Palumbo, 47, a nurse from Norfolk, Virginia, who is active with VAWN and the organization Veterans for Peace; and
• Phil Wilayto, 58, a professional art installer from Richmond who is editor of The Richmond Defender, a founding member of VAWN and the organizer of the People’s Peace Delegation to Iran.
There was also a sixth member, Stacy King, a 22-year-old attorney’s assistant from DC who is active with the DC Anti-War Network. But Stacy became very ill just before the trip and had to cancel. That was really a shame, because she’s a great person and is also African-American, so that would have added a whole other perspective to the delegation.
The delegation left Dulles International Airport in DC, on Wednesday evening, July 18, and arrived in Tehran the morning of July 20. Over the next 11 days we flew 400 miles to the south central city of Shiraz, then traveled 1,350 miles by van to Yazd, Esfahan, Qom and several smaller towns and villages. So it was an 11-day, 1,750-mile journey through Iran.
What were the aims and objectives of your visit to Iran?
Phil Wilayto: Our primary goal was to help build opposition to the increasingly serious plans by the Bush administration to launch a military attack against the Islamic Republic of Iran. An essential part of preparing the US public to support such an attack is demonizing and psychologically isolating Iran, its government and its people.
Only about 300 people from the US travel to Iran each year, so most folks here don’t know much about this country beyond the stereotypes. And there’s actual fear, even among some progressives. So we hoped that just by going to Iran we could help dispel some of the myths and stereotypes. And we wanted to learn as much as possible about this land, its peoples and cultures so we could talk with more credibility when we got home.
And we wanted to let the Iranian people know that not everyone in the US supports George Bush or Dick Cheney, that most of us deeply want peace and friendship with the other peoples of the world. If the US had a true democracy, we wouldn’t be in Iraq or Afghanistan, or threatening Iran or trying to rule the world.
Abbas Edalat: How was your trip organized? How did you make contacts in Iran?
Phil Wilayto: Organizing the trip was pretty straightforward – we recruited the members, did a lot of fund raising, got our passports, contracted with a travel agency based in Tehran called Iran Doostan Tours, applied for visas from the Iranian government, reserved airline tickets to Tehran, did a lot of reading and also talked to Iranian-Americans and other folks who had been to Iran.
One organization whose help was critical was the US branch of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran, or CASMII. The branch’s president, Rostam Pourzal, initially suggested the idea of the delegation and was of tremendous help.
Then as we began to publicize our plans for the trip, we also started getting suggestions from other Iranian-Americans for places and organizations to visit. And we checked out the itineraries of other peace and travel groups that had already gone to Iran. Plus the Iranian travel agency had its own suggestions, and we were gradually able to put together an itinerary we thought would expose us to a cross section of Iranian society, or at least as much as you could hope to experience in 11 days.
What did you do in your visit? Where did you go? Who did you talk to and what did you see?
Phil Wilayto: On our first day, in the capital city of Tehran, we attended the Friday noontime prayer service at the University of Tehran. This is the big weekly religious gathering for this metro area of some 14 million people, and around 10,000 men and women attend. We had heard that they finish the service with a rousing chant of “Death to America!” so we thought that would give us one cultural pole for the trip. Actually, we were two hours into the program when we had to leave, and still no anti-US chants. So we had to settle for a lot of warm smiles and handshakes.
That evening we took an Iran Air plane 400 miles south to Shiraz, the city of “poetry, nightingales, roses and (formerly) wine.” With our expert tour guide and van driver, we visited the tomb of the great Iranian poet Hafez and some other local sites, then drove an hour out to Persepolis, the 2,500-year-old ceremonial center of the First Persian Empire.
From Shiraz we drove through the desert to Yazd, an ancient oasis city of half a million people, then to the stunningly beautiful cultural center of Esfahan, with its 1.5 million trees for 1.5 million residents. Then on to the holy city of Qom and back to Tehran. Along the way we did the standard tourist things – the mosques and mausoleums, Esfahan’s Imam Square, which is the second largest enclosed public space in the world; the luxurious and opulent palace of the last Shah and the one-room apartment that was home to Iran’s next leader, the Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini.
We also had formal meetings. In Esfahan we met with three veterans of the Eight-Year War with Iraq, one of whom is the son of one of the nearly 300 people killed during the war when the US warship Vincennes “accidentally” shot down a civilian Iran Air Airbus. That meeting, held in the lobby of the hotel where we where staying, was particularly poignant because our delegation included two US Army veterans, one of whom had spent 13 months in Iraq.
We visited the Tehran Peace Museum and met with the head of a non-governmental organization that cares for chemical victims of the war, and with the head of an environmental group that publicizes the eco-effects of that war on villages along the Iran-Iraq border. That war lasted from 1980 to 1988, longer than World War II, and took the lives of hundreds of thousands on both sides. So it had a tremendous effect on the country in terms of loss of lives and resources and also the understanding that a military attack is possible.
In Qom we visited the Computer Research Center for Islamic Sciences and met with its director and a theology/IT PhD candidate. And we drove through Natanz, where Iran has its controversial nuclear power facility. We passed by the facility and the surrounding anti-aircraft emplacements. That was one of the few places the guide asked us not to photograph. But the drive was on our itinerary, so the government knew we’d be passing the site.
We also visited a more-than-700-bed nursing home that cares for elderly and disabled people and learned something about the social services provided by the government in conjunction with private groups. For example, we were told that health care is free for those who can’t afford to pay for it. In the US, some 47 million people don’t have health insurance and can’t afford to pay for major operations. Another one-quarter of the US population has inadequate health insurance.
In Iran, education is free through the university level, while in the US a university degree is increasingly beyond the reach of working-class students. In Iran the price of gasoline is heavily subsidized, although a rationing program began just a few weeks before we arrived.
By US standards, there’s widespread poverty in Iran – estimates vary widely depending on the source — but I didn’t see the kind of abject poverty I’d witnessed in the early ’80s when I visited Mexico or the kind I regularly see in wealthy cities here in the US like New York or Washington. The reason seems to be that the government, working with the private organizations, is providing the kind of viable social services that back in the US have been eroding under the increasing attacks by neo-conservatives.
Some of the best experiences we had were the conversations with people we just met on the street. It was really amazing to us, but everywhere we went people wanted to come up and talk. They’d say hi, ask us where we were from, and when we said “USA” they’d light up with warm smiles, shake hands, tell us how much they liked Americans. Bush was another matter, but in 11 days not one person expressed any hostility toward us as individuals. The Iranian people seem to have mastered the art of distinguishing between a country’s government and its people.
Also, I’d like to anticipate the question, “But you probably only saw what the government wanted you to see.” One evening in Qom – it was about 9 p.m. – I walked to an Internet cafe to send an e-mail to family members and friends back home. I stayed till 11 p.m., then got lost on the walk back to the hotel. So there I was in the holy city of Qom, lost – on the eve of a major national religious holiday, no less – wandering the streets and trying unsuccessfully to change some Iranian bills into coins so I could call our guide from a pay phone. I wound up meeting two brothers, one of them a theology student. They brought me back to the hotel in a taxi. So I was out on my own for about three hours.
Two other members of the delegation walked back one evening to their hotel in Esfahan, and in 45 minutes they were stopped by three groups of Iranians who wanted to talk with them. On the streets and public places we talked with anyone we wanted. One afternoon while driving from Esfahan to Qom we stopped by the side of the highway and had tea with a family of goat herders. I learned to smoke a hookah, or “hubble-bubble,” in a 5,000-year-old town about 4,000 feet up in the mountains.
We photographed anything we wanted, except military installations. I made a point of trying to speak with people from as many social classes as possible. I’m not saying we became experts on Iran, but I think we got a pretty fair look at the country and its people.
Did you manage to talk to any government officials?
Phil Wilayto: On our second-to-last day in Iran we had a two-hour meeting with S. Rahim Mashaee, the vice president in charge of tourism and heritage. A short account of that meeting appeared on the Web site of Press TV, the new Iranian English-language television station.
Each of our five delegation members made a statement about who they were and why they had come to Iran, then the vice president made a 50-minute presentation. I think it was a good exchange, and we deeply appreciated such a high-ranking official taking the time to meet with us. I think it shows that Iranians at all levels of society want to go the extra mile to improve relations with the people of the US, despite the actions of the US government.
Also, one of the veterans we met with is the director of the government department that produces films and documentaries. And we had an unscheduled conversation with an official in charge of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s photo gallery in Tehran.
What impression did all of this have on you? What did you learn that you did not know?
Phil Wilayto: My first and strongest impression was that Iranians really like “Americans.” And really want to express that. Everyone from clerical figures to school children to a family of goat herders to about three hundred members of the Revolutionary Guards we met by chance outside a tourist site treated us like long-lost relatives – warm, hospitable, friendly, really anxious to make a connection.
Of course, some of that is because Iran, as a country that once hosted major caravan trade routes, has a long history of hospitality to travelers, something that’s part of the national culture and of which people are justly proud. But it also told us that no one – not parents, not teachers, not the media and not the government – is teaching Iranians to hate Americans. And the proof is with the children.
You can orient an adult to put up a false front, but you can’t teach a child to hate and not have that come out in some way. And all we saw was warmth and hospitality. That’s important, because if a government is planning aggression, the first thing it has to do is teach its own people to fear and to hate the “enemy.” So I think that was one important insight, and it helps in evaluating whether the many charges by the Bush administration against Iran are in fact credible.
It would be helpful if Americans could try and put themselves in the situation of an Iranian. On one side of your country, to the west, is the violent US occupation of Iraq. To the east, there’s the violent US occupation of Afghanistan. To the southeast is Pakistan, with its civil unrest. To the far west is Israel, with its threats to drop a nuke on Natanz. Half the US Navy is in the Persian Gulf. There’s a 28-year-old blanket of sanctions imposed by the US And Bush and Cheney are threatening to bomb your country back to the time of the invention of the brick.
That would be enough to make anyone paranoid, but paranoia is not the impression I got of the Iranian government.
After all, this is a proud country with a history that goes back 8,000 years. Its people were building temples and palaces when my people in Poland and Ireland were living in caves. Iran hasn’t started a war with any other country in more than 200 years, but it’s being threatened by a country that has been involved in wars of aggression almost non-stop since the end of the 19th century. The Iranian people and its government have a right to defend themselves. And we in the United States have a duty to support them, by demanding the US government get off their backs.
What is your assessment about the balance sheet of your visit?
Phil Wilayto: I don’t think it could have gone much better. Neither VAWN nor the Defender newspaper has any money, or paid staff, so it was a lot of work to raise the money to fund the trip. And we were reinventing the wheel, so far as logistics.
We made every mistake a traveler could make, before we finally got to Iran. But the experiences we had and the things we learned just from being there are invaluable. Plus, we now have some credibility when we go to talk with peace groups, religious communities, community organizations, unions and our own friends and neighbors.
How do you think Iran-US stand-off should be resolved?
Phil Wilayto: My own opinion is that the problems lie squarely with the US government, which is acting in the interests of the giant US corporations, particularly the oil industry. The charges that the Bush administration is making against Tehran are hypocritical and meant to distract world opinion from Washington’s real aims in the region.
For example, Bush accuses Tehran of “meddling” in Iraq, but it was the US that backed Iraq during the Eight-Year War, then imposed sanctions on Iraq, initiated the first Persian Gulf War, invaded that country in 2003 and still occupies it today. And Iraq isn’t a U.S, neighbor, it’s half-way around the world. How much more “meddlesome” could you be?
Washington condemns Tehran for trying to develop nuclear power to reduce its reliance on oil. But today more than 400 nuclear power plants are operating in 25 countries around the world, supplying almost 17 percent of the world’s electricity. About 83 more plants are under construction. So why is nuclear power OK for the US, for Lithuania, for Belgium, for South Korea, but not for Iran?
Washington argues that Iran’s nuclear power program is just a step toward developing nuclear weapons. Iran denies that, and there’s no credible evidence to the contrary, but Bush knows it’s an argument that scares the US public. On the other hand, it’s all right for the US to have nuclear weapons, along with Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. In fact, the US has 10,000 nuclear weapons, more than the rest of the world combined – and is the only country that has ever used one. So where’s the real nuclear threat? It’s in Washington.
Bush and Cheney present a picture of Iran as secretive, forbidding, threatening. But it’s the US that has had sanctions against Iran for 28 years. Our delegation had no problem receiving visas from the Iranian government for six people to travel to Iran, but our tour guide wouldn’t be able to get a visa from the US government to visit the States. People in our country are being taught to hate and fear Iranians, but Iranians are evidently being taught great tolerance toward other peoples of the world.
And by now it should be obvious that if Iran’s greatest natural resource were sunflowers, there would be no conflict. But its greatest resource is the world’s third largest known oil reserve, after Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Whoever controls the oil of the Middle East controls the industrial world. And the megalomaniacs in the White House, the Pentagon and Wall Street want to control the world.
Bush, Cheney, Rice and the rest of them say all they want is to promote “democracy” in Iran. But when Iran had a Western-style democracy, back in the early ’50s, the US overthrew it. Why? Because Iran became the first country in the Middle East to nationalize its oil. I think it’s important to understand that all of Washington’s talk about “democracy” is pure hypocrisy.
The US government never imposed sanctions on South Africa when that country was run by a racist, apartheid regime. It never demanded democracy in South Africa. In fact, we don’t really have a democracy in the US If we did, we wouldn’t be in Iraq today, when the polls say that 70 percent of the public wants us to get out.
What Bush wants – and what virtually all the Republican and Democratic contenders for president want – is the privatization of Iranian oil, so the US oil companies can come in and exploit it. If that can happen through a democracy, fine. If it takes a dictatorship – like in Saudi Arabia, a close US ally, that’s fine too. In Bush’s mind, “freedom” and “democracy” are just code words for neo-liberal polices of privatization and foreign exploitation.
What is your message to the American people, the US Congress, the US Senate and the Bush Administration?
Phil Wilayto: To the politicians, the message is “US Hands off Iran!” To the American people, it’s save your pennies and go visit Iran. Meet the people and decide for yourself if this is the “enemy.” Or if you can’t do that, then invite someone from the People’s Peace Delegation to Iran to come and speak to your community organization, your school, union, religious community, your neighbors, whatever. We need to get out the truth about Iran and the escalating threat of war.
How are you going to promote your message?
Phil Wilayto: So far, the two vets on our delegation have been the most successful in arranging media interviews. They’ve been on TV, radio and have been quoted in the print media. Our newspaper, The Richmond Defender, will be printing a four-page supplement in our September/October issue, with stories, reports and lots of photos. We’ve already put out a lot of information on the VAWN Web site.
The Defenders also have a half-hour radio program called DefendersLIVE! on a local low-power station called WRIR-FM, which is available on their website, every Monday from 12:30 – 1 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. And we’re arranging for a lot of local report-back meetings, with civil rights, peace, community, religious and labor groups. And I hope to be able to write a pamphlet or short book on our experiences in Iran.
What do you think the US peace groups and the Iranian expatriate community in the US should do to prevent a US military attack on Iran?
Phil Wilayto: Make it an issue in the anti-war movement. Every time we say “US Out of Iraq!” we need to also say “US Hands off Iran!” Read, learn, study, visit and educate. Spread the word. Agitate for the US government to lift the sanctions and to grant visas to Iranians so they can come here and speak to the public directly.
Of course vote, but remember that the only real, lasting way to effect change in the US, or anywhere else, is to build the mass movement and demand a just society that puts people before profits.
Thanks so much for this opportunity to address this important issue.
For more information about the People’s Peace Delegation to Iran, please contact:
Phil Wilayto, Editor, The Richmond Defender PO Box 23202 Richmond, VA 23223 USA. (804) 644-5834 Fax: (804) 332-5225. DefendersFJE@hotmail.com www.wrir.org