We spoke to Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin after Thursday’s War Powers resolution vote. Whose interests are driving the narrative around conflict with Iran?
TAYA GRAHAM: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m investigative reporter Taya Graham.
Are progressive Democrats just as responsible for the current warmongering as their Republican counterparts? Well, that’s what the mainstream media seems to keep avoiding in their coverage of a possible war in Iran. But the truth is a much more nuanced and ugly conversation. The House Representatives just passed a resolution that would limit President Trump’s ability to order military action in Iran without Congress’s approval. It’s been described as a sharp rebuke to the President from the majority of the House. However, critics see it as an impotent, symbolic attempt to atone for past complicity.
In December of 2019, Democrats and Republicans alike voted for a $1.4 trillion spending bill that included a Pentagon budget increase. But why are Democrats voting for increasing the military budget while they criticize Donald Trump’s aggression towards Iran? Why are even isolationist Republicans turning the other cheek as more monies are appropriated for military expansion?
Well, I’m speaking with Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, to better understand U.S.-Iran Relations and to understand if there’s a possibility for peace in our time. Benjamin has been part of a worldwide antiwar movement for over 30 years and has written books on Iran, Saudi Arabia, and drone warfare. Medea, thank you so much for joining us.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thank you for having me on, Taya.
TAYA GRAHAM: We really appreciate it. So let’s get started. Can you help explain to us exactly what it was that both Democrats and Republicans voted for with this War Powers Resolution? And maybe tell us a little bit about how it’s different than the similar resolution that Congress voted on in April regarding Yemen.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, this is a resolution that says that the president does not have the authority to go to war in Iran, that he has to go to the Congress and get authorization first. There is another bill that Bernie Sanders has introduced that would cut off the funding for going to war, but that is not what’s called a Privilege Resolution, so it’s not clear that, that will even get a vote. They used this War Powers Act before in the case of Yemen, which is a very important thing to use. It’s something that hadn’t been used since the Vietnam War in 1973. But as will probably happen in this case, when it got to the desk of Donald Trump, it was vetoed. Now, the bill that just passed yesterday does have to go to the Senate.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: And we have no idea if we can get enough Republicans to vote along with the Democrats to get it passed. In any case, it will go to the President’s desk. If it gets that far, he will veto it, and then unfortunately we’re not going to have a majority number of Congress people to allow us to override his veto. In any case, it’s still important to do this. Anything we can do to show opposition to the President, a war with Iran, is part of building up a groundswell of opposition to try to avoid an all out war.
TAYA GRAHAM: So as we discussed, Democrats and Republicans alike voted for a $1.4 trillion spending bill, but it also affected an amendment from Representative Ro Khanna and Matt Gaetz that could have blocked Trump from attacking Iran without approval from Congress. Now, Representative Khanna pointed out that some people have a vested interest in not restricting the President’s ability to go to war. Let me read you a tweet from Representative Khanna and then I’m going to give you a chance to respond. “If you were wondering who benefits from endless wars, take a look at how stocks for weapons manufacturers began to rise as soon as Soleimani was killed. Defense contractors spent $84 million lobbying Congress last year and it certainly wasn’t to promote diplomacy and restraint.” So how do you respond to this essential indictment of this system of profiteering that’s become part of our system surrounding our military?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: It’s amazing how quickly the stock market reacts and the weapons companies’ stocks go up as soon as there is a threat of a new conflict. There was a very good article that Sarah Anderson from the Institute for Policy Studies did that show it how the CEOs of the top weapons companies became a hell of a lot richer just in a couple of days because their pay is tied to stock options.
TAYA GRAHAM: Exactly.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: So there certainly is a whole industry out there that loves war, that loves conflict, and that profits tremendously from it. And we should also say that it’s the media, the mainstream media, not the Real News, but the mainstream media that profits from war as well because more people watch the news when they sensationalize the issues and their ratings go up as well. So they’re part of the industry that benefits from war.
TAYA GRAHAM: That’s an excellent point. And I’m sure it’s one that the mainstream media is not going to be bringing up anytime soon. So let me ask you this. Do you think that this is all part of a distraction from impeachment or do you think it’s a continuation of the hawkish policies towards that region?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well Taya, I think it’s both. The timing, one has to question why it’s done at the exact same time that the impeachment process is going to the Senate. And certainly it has taken impeachment off the front and center of the news.
TAYA GRAHAM: Exactly.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: But it is also a continuation because Donald Trump campaigned saying that this nuclear deal was awful, and he said he was going to rip it up when he got in.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: He has done the bidding of his friends in Israel and in Saudi Arabia and some of the big donors like Sheldon Adelson. He has gone even further, not only withdrawing from the deal, but imposing the most stringent sanctions that you can imagine that not only say that U.S. companies can’t do business with Iran, but wants the rest of the world not to do business with Iran, wants to make it so Iran is not able to sell one drop of oil in the international markets. And so this squeezing of the Iranian economy is a form of warfare. It’s an economic warfare. So for the Iranians, the war has been going on for almost two years now. And that’s why it’s important to recognize that the aggressor in all of this is Donald Trump from the minute that he withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, there is criticism coming from Congress, but is it coming from Congress about doing war the right way, or is there actually an anti-war movement in Congress? I mean, are there any real anti-war politicians present in either party?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yes, there are. I think there are people like Ilhan Omar. There are people like Jim McGovern, the two co-chairs of the Progressive Caucus Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal, they are anti-war. Pramila Jayapal was an ant-war activist before she became a Congresswoman. So there are certainly people and I could name more of them, Barbara Lee, Jan Schakowsky. But then you look at the majority of the party and you look at the voices that are being lifted up right now in the party and unfortunately, many of them are the voices of people who just want to be consulted. And so it is always a gamble when you say that Donald Trump has to go to Congress first before he’s allowed to wage war. I think we should say Donald Trump is not allowed to wage war. The American people don’t want it.
It’s terrible for Iran. It’s terrible for the world community, period. And we have to get the voices in Congress to not just be saying you don’t have authorization, but to also be saying, no war with Iran, period. Lift the economic sanctions, period, and bring all of the troops home from the Middle East. The Iraqi government is calling for our troops to go home. We should listen to them. They are after all a government that we helped put in place. And the rest of the region, we’d be better off with the troops coming home. So we have to move these demands forward.
TAYA GRAHAM: And it seems almost redundant to say this but President Trump did of course promise to bring these troops home and has actually added more troops to the region. But let me focus on something different. Where did the escalation with Iran actually begin when the U.S. pulled out of the Iran deal? Can you recount kind of a recent history of moments where the U.S. began to destabilize its relationship with Iran?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, let’s recognize that you really should go back to 1953 if you want to look at how the U.S. has de-stabilized Iran by overthrowing their democratically elected government because it wanted to nationalize its oil. And then fast forward to the 1979 Revolution, which was really a direct response from that decades later, and the animosity with United States that resulted from the U.S. interference in their internal affairs continues to this day. Economic sanctions were imposed since 1979 but they’ve gone up and they’ve gone down. And the real breakthrough was the Iran nuclear deal that was signed in 2015 when it wasn’t just the U.S. and Iran. It was the world community. It’s important to recognize that, that was a given an approval from the entire U.N. Security Council as well as the entire European Union.
TAYA GRAHAM: That’s an important point.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: So it was an international agreement. Donald Trump pulling out of that is a violation of international law. So really, we have to look to May of 2018 when Donald Trump got out of that deal and imposed these sanctions that every six months since then he has added new, more onerous sanctions.
TAYA GRAHAM: You pointed out something really interesting there and I want to dig into it. You actually went to Iran in early 2019. In 2019, can you tell us what you saw there and what it was like in Iran under U.S. sanctions?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yes. We saw that, on the one hand, Iran is used to dealing with sanctions because they’ve been dealing with them for over 40 years. On the other hand, this is a new level of sanctions that has made it basically an economy that functions in the global black market. And so who benefits from that?
It’s ironic that the U.S. says it’s going after the Iranian government, but not the people; but it’s the businesses that have been most hurt. And the government-owned large entities are the ones that actually benefit from the sanctions, because they have the corner on the market. It is the clerics who have large economic entities that can find ways to go around these sanctions that also benefit. But we saw that businesses after businesses were closing their doors, that young people are having a very difficult time finding jobs these days. The jobs don’t pay nearly enough to keep up with the inflation. The medicines such as cancer medicines are hard to find and so people are dying every single day because of these sanctions.
TAYA GRAHAM: That’s terrible.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: So the lives of ordinary people are the ones that are most effected. And the U.S. thinks that this is going to cause people to rise up and overthrow the government. And sure enough, there have been street protest when the Iranian government announced an increase in the price of gasoline. Those were brutally put down by the government. But now that is considered in the past because after the killing of Soleimani, the Iranian people have come together in a much more unified fashion. And now those who are protesting against their own government in Iran are now protesting against the United States.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right. So you pointed out something important there. The death, the assassination of Soleimani, has actually united the Iranian people in a way they weren’t previously. Is there any way to pull ourselves back from the break? Is there any path towards peace and maybe not even just peace, but maybe even a partnership with Iran?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, that’s the important question, is how do we get this man’s man in the White House to step back? And there are a couple of things. One is that we have to get other countries to step up. We have been working with members of parliament in the European Union and telling them we need them to come out much stronger than they have so far. We need the Russians and the Chinese to intervene and try to dial this back. But we also need a movement from the grassroots to say the American people will not stand for another war. It is a positive sign that just two days after this increase in the conflict, we manage to get protests in over 80 cities around the country.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: And then just yesterday there were over 300 protests that happened around the country. We have a global day of action that we’re calling for January 25th and getting tremendous response from our friends in Europe and Latin America and other parts of Asia because they want to show that the world says no to war. But Donald Trump doesn’t care what the world thinks, but he does care about his own election coming up.
And that’s why it’s important to reflect what the polls show, which is the American people don’t want another war but have it be visible on the streets. And we also have to go to our members of Congress and push them to take further steps. We should be going to our City Councils and passing resolutions against war. We should be going to our labor unions, our faith based groups, all of these ways that we can get them to come out with statements saying they’re against a war with Iran.
This is so critical right now, Taya. I can’t tell you how important I think it is. We have a breather right now; which we didn’t think we would have. We’re not in the all-out war this moment, but we could be any day.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: So while we have a chance in these next days, weeks, and hopefully months, we have to really build this movement to show Donald Trump that it would be not in his interest to take this country to war.
TAYA GRAHAM: Medea, I think that is absolutely the perfect place to leave our conversation, but I hope our conversation will continue. And I think what you said was really going to inspire people to keep the pressure on in this anti-war movement. Because you’re right, we’re in a unique moment. We actually have a chance to prevent the war from happening. And this is a unique moment for us. Medea, I want to thank you so much for joining me today.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thank you. And please encourage people to go to codepink.org to find out about the protests, the webinars, the teach-ins, all the other things that we’re doing. Thank you.
TAYA GRAHAM: Thank you. My name is Taya Graham. And I want to thank you so much for joining me for The Real News Network.