Medea Benjamin, CODEPINK co-founder, discusses myths and misconceptions about Iran and the Donald Trump administration’s dismantling of the nuclear agreement. She also talks about her book “Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran”
BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News Network and I’m Ben Norton.
One of the key elements of the Trump administration’s foreign policy has been increasing aggression against Iran. Trump has cozied up with the Saudi regime, but at the same time, has repeatedly called for the overthrow of Iran’s government. Well, joining us to discuss this is a leading figure in the U.S. peace movement who has been helping to lead the fight to save the Iran Nuclear Deal. I’m speaking with Medea Benjamin, who is a co-founder of the women-led peace movement, Code Pink, and also the author of a book on Iran that expels many of the myths about the country, called Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Thanks for joining us, Medea.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Good to be here with you, Ben.
BEN NORTON: So let’s talk about Iran as a country before we talk about U.S. policy. There are a lot of myths about the country. Of course, there is a lot to criticize. It is a theocracy, but it’s also a democratic country. In fact, it’s probably the most democratic country in the region, or at least one of them. They have presidential elections with three fourths voter turnout, which are much bigger than the U.S. They certainly have issues repressing women, they have issues repressing worker’s rights. But compared to U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, as you point out in your book, Iran actually looks much better. Why do you think there are so many myths and can you talk about some of the experiences you’ve had? You visited Iran for the first time in 2008 and you visited it several times since then, and you’ve seen that some of these myths are really ridiculous.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, I’m glad you start out by saying that it is a problematic government, because we are working with civil society in Iran. And depending on what’s happening internally in the politics, there’s more space or less space for civil society to try to make reforms and changes in the government. Right now, is a very difficult time, and there are many people who would be our counterparts in Iran who are in prison. But as you say, the U.S. has put forward a very misguided view of Iran. First of all, they always say it’s the number one state sponsor of terrorism in the world. And when we hear that, we should just say, “Stop, no, not true.” And then, in terms of internally in Iran, there are more avenues for women, for example, to study, to work. We are connected with a group of women business people that have enormous businesses. They have their own, very large factories, their own farms, their own–I’m friends with a woman who is an architect of some of the largest dams in the country.
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So that’s sort of something that you don’t hear about, that women are so actively involved in the economy. There is a myth that the Jewish population is such a repressed population. Being a member of the Jewish community and an American, when I first went to Iran I was very concerned about being both. And as soon as you said that to people, there went, “Oh, first of all, we love America.” And it is a very pro-American population. And then, they love Jews. And it’s funny, whether it’s among these religious Iranians, they’re saying, “Oh, we have so much in common between our religions,” and I try not to say I’m a non-practicing Jew. Or if they’re coming from the secular side, they say, “Oh, we love Jewish sense of humor, Jewish movies, Jewish this.” So that’s another myth. I’m not sure what are the other ones you wanted to bring up, but there are lots of them.
BEN NORTON: Well, and as you point out in your book, Iran has the second largest Jewish population in the Middle East after Israel. And what’s incredible is you cite a 2014 poll by the ADL, which is a pro-Israel group, and they have a vested interest in portraying Iran as an evil bogeyman, but they even were surprised to see that they surveyed anti-Semitic views in the Middle East and found that after Israel, Iran is the least anti-Semitic country in the region.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Absolutely. There’s even a designated position for the small population to have a member of parliament.
BEN NORTON: And what’s interesting is, in your book, you also talk about how Iranians are very careful to distinguish the American people from the American government, which many Americans are actually not. I mean, some Americans do it, but they’re not really privy to doing. Frequently, especially our politicians, conflate the Iranian people with the Iranian government. You hear racist rhetoric about how you can’t trust Iranians. And when we hear in Iran, frequently we see on Fox News and conservative media, they’ll show the signs that say Death to America, Death to Israel. They’re not saying Death to the American people, they’re saying American government policies, which as you point out, have destabilized their government, have imposed crippling sanctions on society that have led to large numbers of civilian deaths, that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister in 1953. They have good reason to be very critical and to even despise the American government. But they always are careful to distinguish it from Americans, like you.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yeah. And maybe that is partly because the Iranian diaspora, and there’s so many Iranians that are living in the United States and in Europe who go back and forth to Iran, and so there is a lot of American culture that gets infused in Iranian society. And people are very good at getting around restrictions of the government. The government restricts things like Facebook and Twitter, and yet it’s very easy for Iranians, and almost all of them do, just get around those restrictions. So there is a lot of back and forth. But things have gotten worse on the U.S. end with Trump, because Iran has been put into the Muslim ban. And so, in Trump’s trying to keep terrorists out of the United States, Iranians who have never been involved in a terrorist activity against Americans here in the United States, have been included in that ban, increasing the animosity towards Iranians in the United States and the equating Iranians with terror.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, let’s talk more about the Trump administration’s policies, and also the policies of his predecessor, Barack Obama. For all of the many criticisms of Obama, who started the war in Yemen, which was launched by Saudi Arabia, the war in Libya, destroying that government.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: The drone strikes.
BEN NORTON: Absolutely, the drone war. One of the few positive elements of his foreign policy was an important breakthrough, the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was an international deal. Although corporate media outlets have portrayed it as a deal between the U.S. and Iran, it was much more. It was a deal between the U.S. and Iran, but the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. So that includes China, the largest country in the world, Russia, also France and Britain, and the European Union and Germany.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: And approved by the Security Council in its totality.
BEN NORTON: Absolutely. So Obama was part of an international process that brought Europe, Russia and China together, and they agreed to a deal, a kind of rapprochement with Iran that would lift sanctions. And these sanctions have crippled the Iranian economy, they’ve led to large numbers of preventable deaths from people who can’t get medication and other forms of assistance in hospitals. But the Trump administration tore that deal up. And still, as of right now, in December 2018, all of the other parties to the agreement are abiding by it, including Iran. The United Nations has made it clear that even though Iran doesn’t have to continue staying in the agreement because the U.S. unilaterally violated it, Iran is still abiding by the agreement. Can you respond to Trump’s destruction, or attempt to derail, this important historic piece of legislation and why Iran is still abiding by its side of the deal?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, it’s really tragic for the Iranian people, who put their hopes in pushing their government to make a deal with the international community, and then to see that the hardliners inside Iran who said, “Why are you doing that, you can’t trust the U.S.” were right, you couldn’t trust the U.S. In comes a new president and unilaterally withdraws from that deal, reimposes sanctions. And the important thing for people to understand about those sanctions, because we toss around the word sanctions all the time, you never know how grave these sanctions are and how crippling they are. Because it says not only are U.S. businesses prohibited from trading with Iran, but any other business around the world that wants to trade with Iran cannot use the U.S. dollar, which is the international currency, and cannot do business with the United States. And so, it has been devastating for the Iranian economy and it’s been devastating for the other countries who want to continue with the deal.
Now, Iran, the government, wants to continue with the deal if it sees some economic benefits, which was promised to it. And that’s why the Europeans are scrambling now to come up with a vehicle for allowing their companies to work with Iran without getting sanctioned by the U.S. But it’s very difficult, and it’s not clear whether this is going to function and whether the Iranian we’ll see enough benefit to the economy to justify staying within that deal. But we have to talk about what is the purpose of the U.S. pulling out, which is to cripple the Iranian economy and to encourage the Iranian people to rise up and overthrow their government.
BEN NORTON: The Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former CIA director, who is an anti-Iran hawk like many people Trump has surrounded himself with, he made that very clear. He essentially admitted that this is collective punishment, which is illegal under international law, but that’s another point. Let’s talk more about the Trump administration’s policies. Because not only do we have Pompeo, but we also have John Bolton, who is one of the most cartoonish hawks imaginable. This is a guy who cut his teeth supporting the Iraq war. He also has lobbied for many years for war on Iran. He has quite the range. I mean, it’s kind of pathological for Bolton.
And we’ve seen that part of the Trump administration’s policy has not only been imposing these crippling sanctions to try to strangle the economy and force the Iranian people to rise up, but the Trump administration has also been supporting other militant groups that have been trying to fight the Iranian government. Recently, we saw a horrific attack on a military parade in Iran by an Ahwazi Arab separatist group which has received support from Western governments as well. The attack was ostensibly targeting a military parade, but several civilians, including children, were killed in the attack. But even more egregious than that, we’ve also seen the Trump administration extend an olive branch to the MEK, the Mojahedin-e Khalq. Tell us about what the MEK is and why the Trump administration and John Bolton have been supporting this bizarre cult.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: It’s absolutely astounding that this is the organization that they’ve chosen to be supporting as a “viable alternative” to the present government in Iran, because the MEK has absolutely no base of support inside Iran. Whether people in Iran hate the Iranian government or like the Iranian government, they hate the MEK. Why? Well, let’s look at what the MEK did right after the revolution. They were part, initially, of trying to overthrow the Shah, but when they lost out, they then joined with Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq and were trained and equipped by Saddam Hussein to go into Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted for over eight years, and a bloody horrible war, and they were blowing up suicide bombers, killing civilians and siding with the enemy.
So they are seen in Iran as a group that has no legitimacy. And on top of that, that they are a crazy group, that they are a cult-like group. And this is not just us saying this, this is the Rand Corporation, this is the U.S. government, internal documents. They were chased out of Iraq after the U.S. invasion, and they now have their base in Albania, which is really like they hold their own people, they’re imprisoned. If you decide, “Uh-oh, I’m seeing through this, this doesn’t look good for me anymore, I want to get out,” you can’t get out of there. And they have a reverence to the head of it, Maryam Rajavi, and her husband, who hasn’t been seen in the last seven years, and seems like he died, but they pretend that he’s still alive somewhere. It is a group that has been on the U.S. terrorist list until 2012, when they got a lot of money, and it seems like they get Saudi money, to pay off a lot of politicians to get themselves off that list.
You talked about John Bolton. It’s reported that he’s taken 180,000 dollars from the MEK. But it’s also people like Giuliani, like Newt Gingrich, and Democrats as well. There are a number of different Democrats, and they just had this holiday party in Washington, DC in the Rayburn building of Congress, where you saw the Democrats like Eliot Engel, who will be the head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the House, going there to give his support. Nancy Pelosi has gone to give her support to the MEK. So it’s very, very bizarre and dangerous.
BEN NORTON: Pelosi has, in fact, Tweeted support for the MEK’s ostensibly human rights front group. But let’s talk a little bit more about the MEK and then let’s talk about the Democratic Party’s response and the leadership’s response to the Trump administration’s unilateral destruction of the Iran nuclear deal. Specifically what’s incredible with the MEK is they are actually a cult in the sense that Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, who are a married couple, the new members in the 90s, they refused to let them get married.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: They had to get divorced.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, they had to get divorced and their loyalty was only to the MEK cult. They have all these bizarre–for all the criticisms of the Iranian government, and there are many, including repression of women, MEK has equally backward views on women’s liberation, and as you mentioned, is allied with Saudi Arabia. So maybe we could talk a bit more about that and how the Democratic Party has failed to stand up to many of these policies. We saw leaders of the Democratic Party under Obama actually side with Republicans against the Iran Nuclear Deal, most infamously Chuck Schumer. And now, even those who supported the JCPOA have been pretty mute.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, you would think … Well, first of all, on the MEK, when we confront these members of Congress and their support for the MEK, they say, “Well, the MEK has changed.” And they’ve changed because they’ve had these great PR firms that they’ve paid a lot of money to basically tell the MEK what to say. And they have all these different front groups. But you scratch under the surface and it is the MEK and it is this cult group and they torture people within their own organization who want to leave. So it is bizarre that so many people in the U.S. government would be supporting the MEK. But the real question is why isn’t the Democratic Party coming out and really criticizing Trump for having unilaterally withdrawn from a treaty that was working and continues to be working, and put the U.S. on a collision course with the international community.
And I think it’s because “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” kind of thing. We see now the Saudis working with Israel against Iran. And so many people in the Democratic Party are still beholden to the Israeli government and the lobby groups like AIPAC, and the Israeli government is determined to find a way to overthrow the Iranian regime. So the Democratic Party, unfortunately, I think through its allegiance to the Israeli government, doesn’t want to speak out against Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal and dangerous course that could potentially lead to another horrific war in the Middle East.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, and let’s conclude. I want to talk about the prospects of a new war. The war in Iraq, an illegal invasion in 2003, was absolutely catastrophic. It led to well over one million deaths and it destabilized the entire region. Ironically, it actually empowered Iran. But before the war, we saw that a major U.S. general had actually acknowledged that there was a list that the Bush administration had drafted of seven countries in five years they wanted to topple or destabilize. Many of the countries on that list have been destabilized or overthrown. Libya, Syria has been largely devastated, Iraq of course, but Iran was always the cherry on top. And it seems like John Bolton and the people that Trump has voluntarily surrounded himself with would love to see a war on Iran. Of course, it could be even more catastrophic than the war on Iraq.
Do you think that that’s a possibility, and if it’s not even a possibility, if it’s not realistic, what other forms of indirect warfare is the Trump administration going to wage on Iran, and how can peace activists here in the United States try to stop and push for peace and diplomacy?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: I would say that there is a war with Iran going on right now. And that is, one, through the proxy wars in the region and trying to goad Iran into retaliating. And the other is sanctions, which is war by other means. Supposedly, medicines and food are exempt from the sanctions, but they’re not because the banks don’t want to deal with Iran. So we see people who are dying from diseases like cancer diseases because they can’t get their medicines. We see people who are having a very difficult time making ends meet in Iran right now because of the sanctions. So the U.S. is waging war on Iran right now. Will it get into a hot war? It could easily happen. We’ve already seen the U.S. attacking Iran in Syria and Iran holding back and not countering that. But how long will they be able to hold back? Will the Revolutionary Guards be pushing for retaliation?
The U.S. sanctions and the U.S. strangling of Iran are actually strengthening the Revolutionary Guards in Iran. They’re hurting the reformists. And so, things are getting more and more tense. So I don’t think we should sit around and wait and contemplate the possibilities of getting into a war with Iran. I think we should think that things are so bad right now, what are we going to do to move the U.S. in a different direction? What are we going to do to pressure the Democrats once they’re in control of the House next year, to put forward legislation saying the U.S. should join the Iran Nuclear Deal? Let us say that we want to have diplomatic relations and trade with Iran. Let us counter all the efforts to be supporting the MEK. I think we have a lot of work to do to reverse course and stop a hot war, but also stop the war that’s going on right now.
BEN NORTON: We’ll have to end our conversation there. We were speaking with Medea Benjamin, who is the co-founder of the women-led peace group, Code Pink, and the author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Thanks so much for joining us, Medea.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thank you.
BEN NORTON: For The Real News Network, I’m Ben Norton.