My first trip to Iran was in 2008. I was traveling with my CODEPINK colleagues Jodie Evans and Ann Wright, and trip organizer Leila Zand. It was just after President Obama’s historic election, and we were excited about the possibilities of improving US-Iranian ties, even though Iran was still governed by conservative President Ahmadinejad. We considered ourselves citizen diplomats, modeling the kind of outreach we wanted to see in the new administration.
I must admit that I was apprehensive about traveling to Iran as an American Jew, since for decades the Iranian government has had hostile relations with the United States and Israel. On our very first day, we passed a building with a banner that read “Death to America; Death to Israel.” Habib Ahmadzadeh, an Iranian filmmaker who was showing us around, laughed. “Don’t take the slogans literally — or personally,” he said. “They’re meant to show opposition to government policies, not people. You’ll find that Iranians love Americans.” Indeed, all the Iranians we met expressed admiration for Americans, even though US economic sanctions were making their lives so difficult.
What surprised me even more was their admiration for Jews. “We don’t like the policies of the Israeli government, but we love Jews,” I was told over and over again. Secular Iranians talked glowingly about Jewish creativity in Hollywood and business. Conservative Muslims said we have the same God, many of the same prophets, and are both are descendants from Abraham. A 2014 poll conducted by the US Anti-Defamation League left the pollsters stunned: It found that the most pro-Jewish people in the Middle East, aside from Israelis, were Iranians.
During this visit we met with all kinds of people, both publicly and privately. We met government officials, as well as people who had been imprisoned by the government. We met religious and secular folks, environmentalists, women’s groups, and businesspeople. We had chance meetings with people on the street who invited us into their homes. We were overwhelmed by the world-renowned Iranian hospitality, where a guest is considered a gift from heaven. We were showered with copious amounts of delicious food, endless cups of sweet tea, and more gifts than we could fit in our suitcases.
Iranians, we learned, revere their Persian heritage and culture; they want you to know that they are not Arabs. They speak Farsi, not Arabic, and can recite centuries-old poems by the revered poets Hafez and Rumi. They recall Persian philosophers, artists, and scientists who go back to 500 B.C. They describe in vivid detail how their country has been invaded by Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, British, and Russians, but prevailed with their culture intact. Yes, they are Muslims, and overwhelmingly Shia Muslims, but they celebrate ancient Zoroastrian holidays — to the dismay of conservative clerics. The nation’s 2,500-year history shines through in their breathtaking architecture, universally acclaimed literature, and deeply spiritual music.
Since 1979, however, the Islamic revolution has turned the nation into a more sober and isolated society where religious leaders dictate everything from what women must wear in public to who can run for office. It also put US-Iranian government relations on a collision course, starting with a hostage crisis at the US Embassy in Tehran that turned into a 444-day diplomatic standoff.
In more recent times, Iran’s nuclear program became a flash point for US-Iranian relations. The US, along with Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China, spent years negotiating a compromise. An historic breakthrough came in 2015 with the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It was the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration, a tribute to reformist Iranian President Rouhani, and an impressive example of what can be achieved when adversaries talk to each other.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump, from the time he was campaigning for president, called it “the worst deal ever” and vowed to tear it up. His first foreign trip as president was to Iran’s nemesis, Saudi Arabia, where he crowed about clinching Saudi arms sales worth $110 billion (most of which were deals already signed under Obama) and denounced Iran as a nation that “spreads destruction and chaos across the region.” He subsequently looked for ways to quash the nuclear deal, imposed fresh sanctions, and even included Iran on the list of countries whose residents were banned from entering the United States, despite the fact that not a single Iranian has ever taken part in a terrorist attack on US soil.
Trump’s effusive embrace of the Saudi rulers and antagonism towards Iran is not really a departure from what has been standard US policy for the past 40 years. The Iranian government is certainly guilty of many abuses, including gross violations of free speech and assembly, restricting the rights of women, imprisoning dissidents, and executing people for nonviolent offenses. But when juxtaposed with Saudi Arabia, the US ally is far more repressive internally. Iran has flawed national elections; Saudi Arabia doesn’t have national elections at all. Iran’s women are restricted, but Saudi Arabia is a much more gender-segregated society. The West applauded the 2017 Saudi announcement that it would allow movie theatres (albeit segregated), while Iran has had a thriving film, theater, and music industry for decades.
In terms of foreign policy, Iran has plenty of blood on its hands, from its involvement in overseas attacks that have killed civilians to its military support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria. While not excusing Iran’s record, it is, nevertheless, fair to hold it up against the track record of Saudi Arabia. For decades, the Saudi regime has been spreading its extremist Wahhabi beliefs, which form the ideological underpinnings of terrorist groups from Al Qaeda to ISIS. In 2011, it crushed the nonviolent democratic uprising in Bahrain, and in 2015 it started bombing neighboring Yemen so mercilessly that millions were left hungry and displaced. I document these abuses in my book Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US Saudi Connections.
Of course, US foreign policy is even more blood-stained. It is ironic to hear US officials accuse Iran of “meddling in the region,” meaning the Middle East, when Iran is part of the region and it is the United States that has been sending its military to “meddle” in the region, including the 1991 Gulf War, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the 2011 overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya.
The US also has a sordid track record of meddling in Iran’s internal affairs. It helped orchestrate the overthrow of elected Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953 and re-installed the brutal and unpopular Shah, paving the way for the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
In one of Senator Bernie Sanders’s rare foreign policy talks, he used Iran as an example of how US intervention and the use of US military power has produced unintended consequences that have caused incalculable harm. “What would Iran look like today if their democratic government had not been overthrown?” Senator Sanders asked. “What impact did that American-led coup have on the entire region? What consequences are we still living with today?”
While we don’t know what Iran would look like today if the United States had not helped engineer the 1953 coup, we can venture a guess that there would not have been an Islamic Revolution, that Iran would be a more secular society, and that it would not be on a collision course with the United States.
We cannot remake the past, but we can help shape the future if we are well-informed about Iran, a nation our government teaches us to hate and our media talks about in such a perverted fashion.
This primer on Iran is meant to give the public a basic understanding of the country, both domestically and internationally. It starts with a brief history of Iran’s long and proud past, setting the scene for the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It then looks at how the new regime cracked down on human rights and religious minorities, and circumscribed the role that women could play in society. It covers the economy, including how decades of western sanctions have affected daily life. In terms of foreign policy, it delves into the tumultuous relationship with the United States and its neighbors in the region. Throughout, I strive to highlight the pushback and heroic efforts by Iranians eager to live in a more open, more democratic society free of outside interference.
My second visit to Iran was in 2014, when I was invited to give several talks about my book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. On the second day, I did an interview on one of the major state-run TV stations. I gave examples of grieving families from Pakistan and Yemen whose loved ones had been callously blown away by US pilots sitting in secure control rooms thousands of miles away. That evening a young man stopped by the hotel and waited several hours until I arrived. “I could tell from the interview what hotel you were in, and I hope you don’t mind that I stopped by,” he said in broken English, as he handed me a beautifully wrapped box of chocolates. “I just wanted to thank you for your compassionate stance on behalf of innocent people who have been hurt by your government’s actions.”
The next day another man stopped by. He was a medical doctor, and he wanted to run an idea by me. “I have been troubled by all the suffering in the world, and also by the dreadful relations between our countries. I would love to see a group of Iranian and American doctors participate in joint humanitarian missions to help people in poor countries like Haiti or Bangladesh. We could show the world how we, the citizens, can work together to help others — no matter what our governments are doing.” I loved the idea and took it to medical groups like Physicians for Social Responsibility and Doctors Without Borders, but couldn’t find any group to take it on.
There is a deep longing among the Iranian people for close ties between Iran and the West, for moving beyond the divisions our governments create. In a more rational world, Iran and the United States would have full diplomatic relations. Trade with this nation of 80 million pent-up consumers would be a boon to US businesses. Intelligence-sharing and other forms of cooperation would help ensure the defeat of terrorist groups like ISIS. And greater international interactions would strengthen those inside Iran who are advocating for a more open society, and those of us in the United States who are trying to stop our government from dragging us into another bloody conflict.
I hope that this book, designed to give readers a better understanding of the history and dilemmas facing modern-day Iran, can help ignite more passion and creativity to forge new people-to-people initiatives that model the government relations we want to see — and that can help stop the path toward war.