Deborah James advocated for Fair Trade at Global Exchange from 1993 – 2005, and now serves as a member of the Global Exchange Board. She is currently the Director of International Programs at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. She recently participated in the Citizen Diplomacy Delegation to Iran with Reality Tours. In a series of posts, she shares with us her experience.

July 12, 2010  Last Days in Tehran

View of downtown Tehran from the Tochal Gondola

After returning from Esfahan, we had a couple of more days to enjoy Tehran, do any last minute shopping, before returning home. We buy books of poetry as gifts, along with Persian sweets, pistachios and dates. Bahman gives me excellent recommendations for popular Iranian music, including Farman Fathalian, Benyamin, Googoosh, and Faramarz Aslani; these will make great additions to my collection, which includes only Mohammed Reza Shajarian of the Masters of Persian Music, whom I saw recently at the Kennedy Center.

I was also quite pleased also to visit the Cinema Museum. I’ve known of Iranian cinema’s cutting-edge reputation for some time, and seen quite a few of their award-winning titles, including Children of Heaven and the Color of Paradise (Majid Majidi), The Circle (Jafar Panahi), A Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami), and Two Women (Tahmineh Milani). This museum was a testament to the importance of cinema as an Iranian art form, as well as its complicated relationship to the government, which have both promoted Iranian cinema – particularly under former President Khatami – as well as censoring it (filmmaker Panahi has just beenreleased from jail.)

During the trip, I have asked about the economy, because I haven’t seen nearly as much urban poverty as many other places I have traveled. From my discussions with Iranians, and from previous research, it seems that the government has invested quite heavily in infrastructure, consumer subsidies, and social services, and the country boasts high levels of education and good health care coverage, and good infrastructure (roads, electricity, water distribution, etc). Economic growth has been steady in recent years. At the same time, several Iranians pointed out that given the revenues from oil, the country should be doing even better. Mostly though, they expressed worry about the impact the sanctions would have on the poor, rather than the governing elite, believing that the mullahs would find ways to evade the sanctions, which would only create more black market activity and drive up prices for the poorer Iranians.

Our intrepid Bahman takes us on a final adventure up a gondola and several chairlifts to reach the top of Mt. Tochal, just above Tehran in the Alborz mountains. Tehranis go to ski in the winter, and to take refreshing hikes in the summer. It is beautiful, relaxing, and pleasant to get some exercise. We also pass by a “green belt” in Tehran, which Bahman explains not just roadside landscape, but part of an extensive new park that has been built for women to exercise without being seen by men.

That evening, Alice and I wonder, for the fourteenth time these last two weeks, How did we get to be so lucky as to be on this trip? When we spoke of our upcoming trip to Iran, most of our friends and family were either scared or thought we were crazy. “Why would you want to go to Iran, of all places?” they would ask, the bewilderment in their voices not at all hidden.

It’s understandable, given the image in Western media of Iran – mostly formed by negative images of a repressed society, a demagogue president, and oppressive mullahs. But these images alone aren’t fitting with the warm smiles and pleasantly surprised looks we got every time a curious Iranian stopped us on the street to inquire as to where we were from. It’s not that those things don’t exist here, but they do so along with another, more complex reality, one of an incredibly varied, dynamic history, of expansive empires and destructive foreign occupations, of artistic and literary marvels alongside current religious fundamentalism, of youth eager for a future and elders mindful of the country’s past greatness.

We turn on CNN International, and hear about the horrifying case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a woman in Iran who has been sentenced to stoning to death after being convicted for adultery. After having seen the film, “The Stoning of Soraya M.” before coming to Iran, and knowing of how wrongfully convicted inmates are still put to death in U.S. prisons, the thought that this dreadful act could still occur turns my stomach. At the same time, it is not difficult to identify the propaganda against Iran being ratcheted up in recent months, and fear that this case will play into the hands of those demanding that the United States “do something” about Iran.

In the two weeks I’ve been here, the number of stories about the “existential” threat posed by Iranian’s alleged nuclear ambitions has increased, with calls for a pre-emptive attack by Israel. What about the real threat of Israel’s existing nuclear weapons? Iran sits surrounded by nuclear Israel and Pakistan, sandwiched between two states – Iraq and Afghanistan – occupied by U.S. troops, which also hold military positions in neighbors Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and UAE. Iran is no threat militarily, and has not acted aggressively towards any other country in decades – something that cannot be said for Israel. Of course no one wants Iran to develop a nuclear bomb. But the majority of the world support Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy. As Chomsky has pointed out, the threats of the US and Israel contravene the NPT – and are more likely to induce Iran to develop a deterrent. If the US and Israel were serious about making peace with Iran, they would reduce that threat. Or do the hawks in our government somehow think that the heroes of the Green Movement will be immune from the destruction of war?

And yet we have seen some of the most incomparably gorgeous mosques and palaces, all architectural gems; walked in sublime gardens and passed by lovely landscape; eaten the most delicious fresh food in fabulously decorated teahouses and restaurants; seen hundreds of painstakingly knotted rugs, delicately painted miniatures, and other beautiful arts; witnessed testament of 2,500 years of proud history; and met some of the most friendly, sweet, and generous people.

I can’t wait to go back and look at the hundreds of photos we took, leap back into my Netflix queue of Iranian films, and finish the other Iranian books waiting on my shelves. I hope that others will take advantage of these tours – next scheduled for September and April. The more Americans know about the Iranian people, the less likely we will be to allow our government to drag us into yet another senseless war.

As grandmothers, mothers, and daughters dine together in Iran, can you help ensure their future is one of peace?

August 2, 2010  post-script

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, this weekend admitted that the United States does have a plan for attacking Iran, although he maintained his position that it is probably a bad idea due to the unpredictable impacts it would have across the Middle East. At the same time, Gareth Porter wrote in Truthout about the neocon strategy of building up enough pressure on Obama, to get the United States to support an Israeli bombing campaign. There’s also a media strategy to build public support, that has evidently convinced two thirds of Americans that Iran already has a bomb. House Republicans seem eager to do so, and have already introduced a Resolution supporting a pre-emptive bombing of Iran by Israel. You can learn about how to oppose this Resolution and support other diplomacy efforts at the National Iranian American Council.

Read the rest of Deborah James’ ‘Journey to Iran‘ blog posts.