The James Carville of Iran
Yesterday was our “Government Meeting” day. When we first asked to meet with people in the government, I don’t think we truly understood that it was that big of an ask. It just doesn’t happen. When we asked the two women members of Parliament if they’d met any other people from the US, they both answered that they’d met no one—and one of the women had been in office for eight years. (Read more about them in Medea’s blog). As we left the meeting—which resembled a meeting with a Republican member of Congress—I asked what they thought of US Foreign Policy. Dr. Zohreh Elahian answered, “I don’t agree with the US forcing Democracy on Iraq and Afghanistan. It needs to come from within. I hope they are not planning that for Iran.” Her message for Obama was that, “He needs to keep his promises. Real change means a different foreign policy.” She felt we should leave Afghanistan as our presence there was not bringing any security—that, conversely, it is creating more instability while opium production has increased 500% and is adversely affecting Iran (this is the trade route to Europe and it is dirt cheap.) We learned that addiction is a huge problem, even though they have many treatment programs and I was surprised to learn they have needle exchange. She suggested all the money we use on soldiers and weapons should be spent to empower the women and people of Afghanistan. She was very upset that US foreign policy operates on threats instead of evidence and said the US makes up stories to cover their own evils. The scars of the chemical weapons supplied by the US and used by Saddam during the eight year war between Iraq and Iran come up in every conversation, including this one. “We have been victims of terrorism ourselves and have the scars to prove it,” she said. “We have an army for defense. We don’t have a history of invading other countries. There is no need for hostility between our nations.”
We left the magnificent old Parliament building (for more see Medea’s blog) for another anti-war film, this one by the filmmaker we met the night before, Rakhashan Bani-Etemad. Gilaneh is a film about a mother’s courage, hardship and love in times of war—another film that had us weeping at its unflinching, heartbreaking and honest telling of the price of war. She skillfully took us into another world and dragged us through it. I think we should bring it back for Hillary. (I have been in a funk all day, reading about the deals she is making to be Secretary of State and how Obama is throwing those who got him elected under the bus for her. Especially to be here, reading it in a country that she threatened to “obliterate.”)
At the conclusion of the film, we picked our heavy bodies out of our chairs and headed for the compound of offices used by the President. Similar to the government buildings in DC, it has barricades and guards at the entrances to the gates. We were ushered in with Habibi flashing a smile and his authority. (Medea introduces the characters of this meeting in her blog.) I have renamed Mr. Kalhor the James Carville of Iran—flamboyant, confident (much more likeable), artistic and articulate. As he started to talk, Medea and I kept looking at each other, confused that the words out of his mouth matched neither his relaxed and open demeanor nor his artistic appearance while Habibi and Leila were steaming and had turned sullen. Here we were with the “Media Advisors,” and we meant to tell them how poorly Iran comes across in the US press, even as it became clear that it was because of them. Leila warned us to behave, but it seemed a waste to not speak up. I tried to do it by explaining. Medea tried by expressing her confusion at the incongruence of his appearance and smile and what was coming out of his mouth. That’s when he admitted that he was telling giving us the government’s “official position”—not his personal one. Instead of creating more tension, it opened up the conversation and in the end, Medea and the other advisor were in a frisky conversation in Spanish. In the process we learned that Iran had 30-year-old conditions on the table for dialogue with the US. They wanted to get the replacement parts for the airplanes they had purchased from the US and to get back the $18 billion in frozen assets. But the conditions were changing; either they put $500 million worth of troops in the US or the US remove them from Iran and we end our international support of Zionism. They reminded us that the US violates agreements as a habit, or maybe a rule. There had been a dialogue in Algiers in 1980 where the US committed itself to never meddle again in the internal affairs in Iran. This has been repeatedly violated and they say they have over 100 instances from our own documents—our Congress even allocated money for it.
Later Habibi used the analogy of the abused wife whose husband continues to cheat on her, forever promising not do it again. When do you decide to stop and say I can’t feel like a fool anymore? The latest wound seems to be the US requesting Iran’s help in Afghanistan (which they gave) just before we turned around, made them part of the Axis of Evil and began to spread lies and misinterpret quotes to fuel the flames of hatred. They were quite concerned with how they are portrayed in films from Hollywood and asked for our help in some better representations. It was about an hour history lesson in all the grievances Iran feels it has suffered at the hands of the US. Medea asked about the threatening language towards Israel—didn’t they say they wanted to wipe it off the face of the earth? They responded that it is not the Israeli people they take offense to, but Zionist attitudes towards the Muslim people. He said they would never invade Israel because they believe that corrupt systems collapse from within, using Hitler and Saddam as examples. They assume this will happen to the Zionists. Medea complained to him about her head scarf, saying she felt imprisoned by it. “We obey your laws when we visit your country,” was his response. Later as we left, Habibi, who we call Gandhi, quietly said to Medea, “You wonder why we act from hurt after 30 years of having a hand on our throat with our own form of a head scarf. (Medea’s was tied closely around her throat to keep it on and he used his hand to demonstrate a hand on her neck.) We all felt it very clearly.” He went on, “The biggest problem between Iran and the US is Palestine, it is a lot worse than a headscarf.” We asked again about the Iranian support of the Taliban and we were again looked at like we were clueless about the realities of their world. When will Americans understand that Al Queda and the Taliban are like the Klu Klux Klan to most all Iranians?
We then rushed to our meeting with the Miles for Peace group. (Medea will introduce you to all the players in her blog.) It felt like a CODEPINK meeting, passions flowing and hearts ready to be in action. Ideas were popping in a flurry of inspiration. One project they are working on is to bring the US soccer team to Iran to play, but that was just the seed of the idea—the full vision is to have thousands of Iranian youths waving US flags. “The kids want the fight between the mother and father to be over,” they said, an interesting way to look at the situation. They want both countries to be busy building the future because when you are building, you don’t go to war. They echoed their fellow citizen’s earlier complaints about how they are portrayed in Hollywood movies—another emerging theme of this trip.
All Iranians want is peace, they declared. “How do we get that message to the world?” They want a genuine relationship with the rest of the world. There was both a seriousness and lightness of being in the group. We laughed and cried often. Many of them give their time to different casualties of war; the wounds of chemical warfare, orphans, disaster relief. An idea I worked on with Samira after the group broke into smaller pods to eat (something you do at every meeting) was to get some of the young children she works with to do drawings for Obama about wanting Peace, then delivering them to him and possibly Sasha and Malia’s schools. We could ask CODEPINK locals to also work on them from schools in their communities. Peace on Earth could be the message for the holidays to Obama. When we reluctantly broke up after midnight, we had been filming their messages to Obama. They are fantastic! I can’t wait to get home and get them up on Youtube.
As the parliamentarians reminded us earlier in the day, “We may not have all the rights women have in the US, but we have free health care and education.” That seems to have contributed to strengthening women’s voices in Iran and Dr. Roustani finished the night declaring, “Women will be the leaders in Iran.”
After today, I can believe it.
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