U.S. Peace Delegation to Iran Welcomed by Foreign Minister, Met by FBI Agents on Return
Sunday, March 10, 2019
SHARMINI PERIES: It is International Women’s Day here at The Real News Network. It’s marking the 90th anniversary of the first National Women’s Day in the U.S. that took place in New York City in 1909. International Women’s Day is really a rally for the peace movement, women’s rights, better working conditions, all coming together under the banner of socialism. Perhaps that is why this day is not marked in any significant way here in the U.S. But in Canada, Russia, Turkey, many other Latin American countries, it’s a national holiday. It is marked as a very important day for women’s liberation.
Well, it is quite appropriate, then, we are joined today by two phenomenal women who are the torchbearers of that history of that movement. And coming to us from Washington, DC, we’re joined by Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink and the author of Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And here in our Baltimore studio we have Dr. Margaret Flowers. Flowers is a pediatrician in Baltimore, and co-chair of the Maryland chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program, and co-director of Popular Resistance.org, and is also a founder of It’s Our Economy. And Kevin Zeese, also co-founder of Popular Resistance and a member of the advisory board of World Beyond War. And Kevin’s here because he is an ardent supporter of the two women that are also here.
KEVIN ZEESE: Two of my favorite women, plus you. I’m so lucky.
SHARMINI PERIES: Welcome.
MARGARET FLOWERS: Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Medea, let me start with you. This program is really about a peace delegation you recently took organized by Code Pink to Iran. And let’s start off with what your mission was in taking a delegation of Americans to Iran, and whether you met your objectives.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: One of the reasons we wanted to go to Iran was to see how the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement and subsequent imposition of very harsh sanctions was affecting the lives of the Iranian people. And certainly, as we traveled around the country talking to people, we found several things. One is that the purchasing power of people has plummeted, making it very difficult for them to feed their families, to decide on important life choices like putting off getting married because they didn’t have the money anymore; traveling overseas; even going to a university overseas was no longer possible for many of them. And then even though the sanctions are supposed to exclude medicines, we did find that although Iran produces most of its own medicines, certain medicines for diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis, or diabetes, it was difficult for them to find those. So we found from life choices to lifesaving medicines, the sanctions have made people’s lives quite difficult.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Margaret, your observations and what you found?
MARGARET FLOWERS: Well, I went there to see for myself, to see Iran. We don’t get a lot of information about here in the United States. And to make connections with people of Iran. And we had great success at that. I think one of the things that I found that, you know, is unfortunate, we went to the University of Tehran, where we met with world studies students, some who were doing American studies. And because of the travel ban in the United States they can’t come to the United States to see it firsthand. There’s also very limited exchange. It’s difficult for them to get books translated from the United States, because even when the authors agree to have the book translated, then they can’t make the financial transaction with the publisher to complete that contract.
So, speaking–you know, spending time with the students, and you know, just seeing Iran, and it’s a country with such a deep history and such a mature society, it just struck me what a real loss it is to people in the United States to not be able to have a cultural and academic exchange with the people of Iran.
SHARMINI PERIES: Such a huge and long history in Iran that people could benefit from.
MARGARET FLOWERS: Absolutely. For our adolescent country.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Kevin, let’s get you in on this, in terms of what came out of this peace delegation mission and what you achieved.
KEVIN ZEESE: Well, I think we still have a lot of work to do. I think we’ve made some great first steps, built some excellent contacts. And I was very impressed with how much the Iranian people love the American people. I was told that so many times, whether I was in a bazaar, at a shop, or at the University of Iran with students or academics, or with government officials. It was all so positive. They really want to have good relationship with the United States, and they’re disappointed that they don’t. And so I think there’s room for us to really work toward achieving a positive relationship.
I do think it is like–Tehran, Iran is 2,500 years old. I mean, it’s 2000 years old. It’s 10 times as old as we are. We’re an adolescent bully to this really mature country with, in addition of being a country for 2,000 years, 7,000 years of civilized history. And a very complicated government. We went to the Parliament. And just like our Parliament fights about the budget, they were 11 days from the budget deadline, and they were shouting at each other in the Parliament about various aspects of the budget. You felt like a real democracy there. Real debate. And sure, like our democracy is flawed, theirs is flawed, too. Limited debate is allowed in our country, as well as theirs. But there is debate. And there’s lots of checks and balances. I think there’s a lot we understand about Iran, and a lot we can learn. And if we had a more positive relationship we could probably help each other a lot.
SHARMINI PERIES: And to your point about being welcomed, and very happy to hear and see Americans, I think that desire is really squashed here when there’s travel warnings to Iran, and you hear so much negative stories about how people are imprisoned and detained by the government, and so on. Which was not your experience. Right, Margaret?
MARGARET FLOWERS: I felt safe the entire time that I was there. And in fact, people went out of their way to welcome us. So yeah, exactly. It’s the complete opposite of what we hear.
SHARMINI PERIES: And to that point, Medea, when you returned from Iran, you got quite the welcome in Washington, DC.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yes. Not only did Ann Wright and I get called to secondary screening, but after that we were greeted by FBI agents who had a whole dossier on us of what we did, which mostly they got from our own website, our blogs. But they also had a packet of information for us about the sanctions on Iran, the U.S. government policies towards Iran, the issue about registering as a foreign agent, indictment of Iranian groups to scare us away from talking to them. And yes, it was not the warm welcome that we received when we went to Iran.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now I know you, all of you, went on some incredible exchanges. You went to the Peace Museum. But definitely one of the highlights of your trip was meeting with the foreign minister himself, Javad Zarif. And it was an interesting time to be in Iran, because he had actually resigned his post as foreign minister.
KEVIN ZEESE: After he spoke to us.
MARGARET FLOWERS: Right after he met with us.
KEVIN ZEESE: When he spoke to us he was still foreign minister. After he spoke to us he resigned.
SHARMINI PERIES: And then the next day he was reinstated. So let me go to you, Margaret. What exactly happened? And then I’ll call on Medea to talk about the meeting, and Kevin.
MARGARET FLOWERS: It was amazing. This was our first morning in Iran, and we were brought to the Foreign Ministry to meet with the Foreign Minister Zarif, and brought into a big room. As usual, tea and, you know, sweets, that was everywhere we went. And he initially asked what questions we had. He took a few questions. And then he gave about an hour long speech that was just tremendous. He went on and on about how we can’t have security in the world when some areas are insecure about our connectedness, and globalization, and how we really need to work together. He went through more than 10 years, really, of negotiating the Iran nuclear agreement, and how painstaking that was, and how happy people in Iran were when that was passed, and how disappointing it was that the United States didn’t keep our end of that of that bargain. And then he took some more questions afterwards. So it was just more time than we could have expected. It was a great experience.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Medea, let me go to you. This was a major achievement. I mean, you don’t often get a civilian delegation going to Iran and get the opportunity to actually meet with the foreign minister. How did you actually achieve that? So I have the same question that the FBI agents had toward you.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, I had actually met the foreign minister in New York at the United Nations, and told him that we were organizing this delegation, and asked then if we would be able to meet. But we of course didn’t know until we got there whether that would happen. And I want to echo what Margaret said, because he’s such an intelligent man. And he staked his reputation on negotiating with John Kerry and the West. And now with Trump coming in and just ripping up that deal, both he and President Rouhani are really under intense pressure now, because the deal is barely hanging on by a thread, and the economic relief that the Iranian people thought they would get from this deal has not happened.
So part of the reason that he resigned is because he was challenged so much by those on the right who said you should never have talked to the United States, you should never negotiate with the West, they are untrustworthy. And indeed, those conservatives were right. We are not trustworthy. And that’s why it’s so important that we do everything we can asU.S. citizens to try to get the U.S. back into the nuclear agreement and move forward on a path of dialogue. Because having somebody like Zarif to talk to is very rare and very important. And if he loses power, and all of those who are part of this movement to increase their connections with the West lose power, we’re definitely going to be on the path of war, which is the path that the Trump administration is taking us down.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Kevin, your observations of that meeting and the foreign minister, and the dialogue you had. What came out of it for you?
KEVIN ZEESE: It was amazing. I mean, he’s so well aware of Iranian politics and U.S. politics. He was educated from high school through his Ph.D. in the United States. So he knows U.S. politics. He became involved in the foreign ministry at a very early age, because the revolution happens in 1979. They need someone to be involved in the foreign ministry. He’s a young Ph.D. graduate, and he gets to be working at the UN. And so he’s with the top echelons of Iranian government for forever. So he knows that politics.
And what really impressed me was how aware he was of public opinion. I never hear Mike Pompeo talk that way. He was aware that 80 percent were supportive of the nuclear agreement. Now it’s down to 51 percent. He’s aware of how it could impact the next election and how it may bring a conservative government in, and that may undermine relations with the U.S. He had a plan from the beginning when he started negotiations in 2005. He thought it was an easy one for them, because they don’t have nuclear weapons. They weren’t planning on building nuclear weapons. So hey, we’re happy to agree not to build nuclear weapons. And agree to that and then build on it, make a positive step, and then a positive step, and then another positive step to build a positive relationship with the United States. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.
And so I was just impressed with his intelligence, his ability to understand how U.S. and Iranian politics mix together, and his own politics. I mean, I think he resigned because–what he said when he resigned was he failed the Iranian people. Which I thought was very interesting. But what he was–he was losing power. Because of the Trump administration’s move, people like him who tried to negotiate with the United States were looked at as failures. But when he did that people also said “You’re important to us.” Half the Iranian Parliament gave a letter to Rouhani saying keep him, don’t accept his resignation. There were words coming out of this, the Ayatollah, we support him. There was words coming out of the military, we support them. And finally, Rouhani didn’t take the resignation.
So I think he ended up stronger. But I think he was ready to leave if he wasn’t going to be stronger. So I think he’s a very smart guy. I hope that he stays. And I hope that the United States actually listens to him, because he’s trying to do the best, not only for Iran, but for that region, and for the United States. Our security is weakened if we don’t have a good relation with Iran. It’s in our interest to have a positive relationship.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Medea, the foreign minister identifies the Iranian revolution as the departing point as far as relations with the U.S. is concerned. You wrote the book recently on Iran. Tell us why this departure takes place. Take us back in history.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, he really talked about the influence of foreigners in Iran’s affairs going back hundreds of years. And he certainly talked about U.S. interference, 1953, overthrowing the democratically elected government. The rupture of relations when the Iranian revolution took place in 1979. And the fact that over these last 40 years they have not had relations, although Iran has reached out at various points. For example, after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, Iran reached out to the U.S. to show its support. After the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, Iran helped to get the Northern Alliance at the table to try to come up with a government that would lead to a stable Afghanistan.
I think the foreign minister talked about just a series of betrayals by the United States every time Iran wanted to reach out. And though he talked about Saudi Arabia, I don’t think he talked very much about Israel. But we know very well that it’s both Saudi Arabia and Israel that have really tried to squash any coming together between the U.S. and Iran, and were especially opposed to the Iran nuclear agreement, and have been trying ever since to get somebody like Trump in power who would rip up that deal. So it is a very sad history of U.S. interference, and the U.S. trying to make an Iranian government subservient to U.S. interests instead of a sovereign country.
MARGARET FLOWERS: Can I add something to that? Because when we were at the university speaking with one of the professors, one of the things that he said to us is that, you know, the Shah that was put in place after the coup of Prime Minister Mosaddegh was very Western-friendly. And the parents of the current students were a part of the generation that rose up and overthrew that Shah. And the generation, the current generation, is saying, well, they’re looking to the West. They’re interested in the West. And they look down on their parents for why did you disrupt that relationship? But after the whole nuclear agreement was torn up, now they’re understanding why their parents didn’t like the West. And so it’s having an impact on the current generation of not looking favorably upon us.
KEVIN ZEESE: You know it’s not just the Mosaddegh coup. When we were at the Peace Museum they showed us the history of the Iraq war, and the U.S. role in that. The U.S. encouraged the Iraq invasion. They attempt to take land from Iran. The U.S. provided Iran with chemical weapons, the precursors of chemical weapons, with intelligence information. They really were a partner in the Iraq war that killed a million people. And it was a very–that affected every family in Iraq, so many people died–in Iran. So many people died.
And we later went to the cemetery, where thousands of martyrs, they call them, are buried. And the cemetery is packed with people. This is–the war went from 1980 to 1988. And people are still going. One woman went and came up to our group and said that her son, her only son, died in the war, and she has been coming to the cemetery every day since. This is a country that does not want war. And yet we have people like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump talking about war all the time. It’s like two ships passing at night. Iran wants to find a way to peace. They’ve made efforts to do that. They negotiate in good faith. They’ve lived up to the agreement on the nuclear agreement. And yet here we have Trump and Pompeo and Bolton threatening war and trying to conduct regime change operations constantly against the country. It’s absurd and sad. And embarrassing.
SHARMINI PERIES: Medea, let me give you the last word here. A lot of this U.S. policy towards Iran has a lot to do with the relationship the United States has with Israel. Tell us about that relationship, and how it’s influencing foreign policy, and these threats and sanctions and so on with Iran.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, Israel and pro-Israel groups put a lot of money into trying to quash the nuclear agreement, and didn’t succeed. But in response–this was under the Obama administration–he agreed to up the amount of U.S. tax dollars that go to Israel. And of course, this really goes to the Israeli military. And then in terms of Saudi Arabia, they didn’t want the deal either. And the agreement there was that the U.S. was going to help the Saudis in their devastating war and Yemen. And we see the results of that to this day.
So I would just end by saying that hopefully there is, with this big controversy around Ilhan Omar, a new thinking about Israel and the U.S. relationship, and the possibility within the U.S. Congress of even questioning this relationship. And this is an opening for us to talk about Iran, to push each of the presidential candidates to take a position that the U.S. should rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement. It is already in the position of the Democratic Party, which is something that the Foreign Minister Zarif knew about, and thought was a very positive thing. So the Iranians are looking to U.S. elections, and thinking if they can hold on, and we the American people are smart enough to vote Trump out of office, and put somebody in place who is more rational and really wants to stop a new war in the Middle East, with Iran, that this will be a way to bring relief and some opening in the relationship. So really it is our duty to change our government and put somebody in place, and a Congress in place as well, that will lead us to the path of negotiations, not war.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. That was Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink in Washington, DC. And in our studios we’ve had Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese, co-founders of Popular Resistance. Thank you all for joining us today.
KEVIN ZEESE: Thank you very much.
MARGARET FLOWERS: Thank you.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thanks for having us.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.