In an effort to establish peaceful diplomacy with the government and people of Iran, and to model for the new Obama administration the power of cooperative good will, three highly regarded American peace makers have ventured to Iran. CodePink cofounders, Jodie Evans and Medea Benjamin, along with former Army Colonel and decorated Foreign Service Diplomat Ann Wright, are visiting Iran on visas coordinated by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which similarly organized the September 24th meeting in New York City between civilian leaders of the American peace movement and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In that historic citizen diplomacy gathering, Iranian President Ahmadinejad met with approximately 120 representatives from American peace and social justice organizations, where over the course of two hours, he took unfiltered questions from the groups. The question from the women of CodePink, who travel extensively on missions of peace, addressed why the organization's founders were repeatedly denied visas to Iran. Ahmadinejad offered to remedy the situation. Thanks to the efforts of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, working in consort with the government of Iran, visas to Iran were issued on Monday to Benjamin, Evans, and Wright. Seventy-two hours later, these intrepid citizen diplomats were packed and on their way.
I caught up with Evans yesterday on her stop-over in Frankfurt and asked her to explain the intent of her mission. She replied:
We're traveling to Iran to strengthen our connections with as many groups as possible in the areas of government, culture, education, women and, of course, peace. We've come to deepen our work as citizen diplomats to model the type of diplomacy we hope to see from our new government.
With the Bush administration's unrepentant militarism over the past eight years, preferring destruction over discussion and war over words, and with Bush refusing to meet with his contrived opponents unless antagonistic preconditions were met, it's fallen upon citizen diplomats to pursue and model the adult diplomacy this nation needs.
For the past three years, Medea Benjamin, author and internationally recognized human rights advocate with Masters Degrees in Economics and Public Health, has been denied travel to Iran -- even though Global Exchange, the San Francisco-based global justice organization she founded with husband, Dr. Kevin Danaher, has sent groups to Iran every year. With the Bush administration soon to exit and the Obama administration coming in, Benjamin has new hope for more conciliatory relations between the United States and other nations. When I asked Benjamin about the purpose of this mission, she wrote the following from Iran:
We hope the Obama administration will begin direct talks with Iran -- without preconditions. On this visit to Iran, we are modeling the policy we would like to see. We're meeting with pro- and anti-government groups. With religious and secular people. With environmentalists, women's groups -- a wide swath of the Iranian people. We hope to take their messages back to the US, and find creative ways to expand people-to-people ties. Our motto is "Let's talk!" which has tremendous resonance among Iranians, who are all anxious to promote dialogue and avoid war.
Indeed, CodePink's current campaign, directed at President-elect Obama, is simply called "Let's talk!" It's a wide-ranging invitation to the incoming President to be all-communicative and all-inclusive. It calls upon Mr. Obama to be the great communicator he's capable of being and to use his formidable skills to dialogue with all the world's leaders, absent the egocentric preconditions of his predecessor. Let's talk!" is similarly a resounding invitation to the President-elect to meet with the individual members of peace and social justice organizations who worked so hard to elect him. It calls upon Mr. Obama to show these American patriots, who like him, opposed the Iraq war from the start, the same respect they were shown by the President of Iran who gave them his time and took their unfiltered questions. "Let's talk!" invites Mr. Obama to be The People's President and take the opposite tack of his predecessor who not only refused to meet with anti-war patriots, but scorned their love of country.
Today from Iran where these peace makers traveled, I received this informal message from Evans who was clearly captivated by her day. Consider that this message is from a woman who's been to over 80 countries; to every continent on the globe; who served in the cabinet of the Governor of the largest state in the union; who ran two Presidential campaigns; and who sits on more boards than any person I know. This is the exhilaration she felt after her day as a citizen diplomat, modeling communication, understanding, and compassion. You know -- just being an American intent on keeping peace:
We are just back from a fantastic day. Memories of our first days in Iraq almost 6 years ago strike us as we walk the streets, enter buildings and Medea and I share a tiny room with twin beds. But no call to prayer at 4 in the morning outside our window like there was in Iraq. I came down from the bedroom this morning for breakfast and we were swept away and now just returning at 10pm. It began when Rostam Pourzal arrived to ask what we wanted from our trip. Immediately he was on the phone with friends. Habib Ahmadzadeh soon arrived -- a filmmaker who tells the story of war.
Habib told us we take too literally the words, "Death to America" or "Death to Israel." They're meant to describe the policies of the US government or the Israeli government which seem very much like apartheid in South Africa. He said that the majority of Iranians are anti-war. He repeated what I've heard so often from Iranians: "We aren't warlike. We don't invade people. We only defend ourselves."
Habib talked about his mother's heartache for the American soldiers who died in Iraq. She lost a son in the war and can feel the grief of those mothers. We asked him about President-elect Obama and he responded: "He is a walnut inside a shell and unknown. Hopefully history has taught us how little an individual can do. We need to learn how to rely on ourselves."
Medea asked Habib about Afghanistan, and told him that Dobson [James Dobson, Focus On The Family] said Iran was funding the Taliban. Both Habib and Rostam laughed and said, "Taliban worse enemy of Iran. . . ." We went to his offices and watched a powerful film, The Night Bus, about the cost of war on everyone. It takes place during the Iran/Iraq war. I was in tears almost throughout. It unflinchingly exposes the costs of war to heart, mind, spirit and soul . . . nothing heroic or beautiful about war. He says there is a movement in Iran to turn weapons into pens, or ways to communicate. That is why he makes films. . .
He was in the military for many years and suffers from wounds of chemical weapons until today, so he also works with a group against the use of chemical weapons and the support of those who are suffering from their effects. What a big hearted wise man. In his attempts to show us his films there were technical difficulties and he laughed that Americans thought Iranians could have nuclear weapons. They can't even get high speed internet or get video equipment that works.
At 7pm we were off to a beautifully manicured park, full of women and college age students with a café called The House of Artists. The café was rich with conversation and everyone looked as if they were a poet or an artist. A nuclear engineer came over to find out who we were, exclaiming that he was educated at Cal State LA. I asked him how close they were to a bomb. He laughed. Said it would be a very long time.
Soon our table was full of amazing women. Women who work for peace. Most were about our age, had grown children, and had suffered in some way for being outspoken -- but were still fearless. Their faces were full of joy and life and the conversation was at a pitch for hours. We began to work on our project of asking Iranians what they would like to tell new President Obama. The filmmaker Rakhshan Bani-Etemad sat in the garden with Medea for about 15 minutes of filming with the camera in the hands of Habib. The generosity of everyone is overwhelming, their time, their stories, their passion . . . we can't even pay for a meal.
Tonight the students from Miles for Peace who bicycled across the US came at about 11:00 to beg Medea for time to take her to see their Iran. They also told us about their plans for a friend to swim the Persian Gulf for peace, and an agreement they have for the US soccer team to play the Iranian soccer team in April and then 50 Iranian/Americans to come to Iran and bicycle across Iran as they had done across the US.
There is so much more but I am exhausted.
Hey president-elect Obama, Iranians are wonderful people. They don't deserve harm. In my life as an educator, I work with many Iranian adults. My students are physicians, engineers, educators, scientists and more. Iranians living in America are frequently more wealthy than those in Iran today. They left Iran with their riches. Most define Iran by "before the [Islamic] Revolution" and "after the Revolution." They are some of the best-traveled, most sophisticated and generous people I know. Most Iranians I've met, who are naturalized citizens, voted for you in hope you'd negotiate a lasting peace with Iran.
Voices for Peace (Dir. Schauleh Vivian Sahba)
I also have Iraqi students -- but just a few. Of my Iraqi students, one always comes to mind. He's an incredibly handsome young father of a very famous young son. His son was the beautiful five year old boy who was set on fire in Iraq, terribly disfigured, and brought to the U.S. to be treated. The young father is making a life here in America. He smiles and tells me of his young son's progress. About his many operations. In each conversation I feel his sense of pain. In each conversation I feel my sense of shame.
President-elect Obama, take a lesson from the citizen diplomats who have traveled to Iran. "Let's talk!" Let's stop the next war now!!
Recently in New York City, CodePink distributed a faux edition of the New York Times, displaying the headline, Iraq War Ends! It was enthusiastically received!
Last week in Washington, DC, CodePink visited the Syrian, Iranian, Cuban, Venezuelan and Bolivian embassies to deliver doves, apple pies, flowers and cards. All five countries have had strained relationships with the Bush administration. The CodePink message to these embassies was yes we can live in peace. As you can see, we're ready for change.
So tell us, President-elect Obama, now that you're taking office with your commitment to change, when's a good time to talk?