The American People's Peace Delegation to Iran
September 6, 2007

Members of the Peace Delegation are welcomed on their return to the US from Iran.
The People's Peace Delegation to Iran toured Iran from July 20 to 30. The trip was cosponsored by the Virginia Anti-War Network (an association of 22 peace and justice organizations) and The Richmond Defender, a bimonthly, all-volunteer newspaper serving predominantly working-class, African-American communities in Virginia.

The members of People's Peace Delegation were:

  • Art Marburg, 54, a retired factory worker, former union official and cabinetmaker from Wisconsin who is a lifelong peace and justice activist;
  • Tyla Matteson, a retired Virginia schoolteacher who is an active member of the Sierra Club;
  • Geoff Millard, 26, a reporter who is president of the Washington, DC, chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War;
  • Tom Palumbo, 47, a nurse from Norfolk who is active with Veterans for Peace and;
  • Phil Wilayto, 58, the organizer of the Peace Delegation and editor of The Richmond Defender.

    An Iraq Vet Visits Teheran
    Geoff Millard / Iraq Vets and Voters

    As an Iraq veteran, I was pleased to join the Peoples Peace Delegation to Iran. It is important for Iranians to meet Americans who are working to prevent war with Iran and it is important for Americans to be able tell our fellow countrymen what Iranians think about the US

    During our 1,750-mile journey, we were greeted warmly by the Iranian people. In the city of Shiraz, children on a school trip engulfed us.

    "Hello!" they yelled with a child's innocence.

    "Hello!" we yelled back.

    "Where are you from?" they asked.

    "America," we said with a smile. "Oh, oh! I love Am-ree-ka!"

    Most Iranians expressed no interest in nuclear weapons. "Why would we ever need a nuclear weapon?" one man told us, "The US has eliminated all our threats and now there is no need for it. Mr. Bush has killed Saddam and taken out the Taliban, so Iran is the only power in the Middle East."

    George W. Bush has been escalating the rhetoric against Iran -- labeling their military a terrorist organization and blaming Iran for supplying explosive devices used in Iraq. September is going to be the key month for advocacy against the Iraq occupation. We have our work cut out to prevent a military attack on Iran. Trips such as this can only advance our chances of peace stripping by away the rhetoric and putting a human face on war.

    Inside the Islamic Republic of Iran
    Phil Wilayto / The Richmond Defender

    Among the surprising sights to be seen in contemporary Iran: a new woman-owned fleet of 2,000 taxicabs, for the express use of women passengers. Credit: The Iran Daily
    Our delegation left Dulles International on July 18 and arrived in Tehran the morning of July 20. Over the next 11 days, we flew 400 miles and traveled 1,350 miles by van to Yazd, Esfahan, Qom and several small towns and villages.

    Our primary goal was to help build opposition to the Bush administration's plans to launch a military attack against the Islamic Republic of Iran. An essential part of preparing the US public to support such an attack is demonizing and psychologically isolating Iran, its government, and its people.

    Only about 300 Americans traveled to Iran last year, so most folks don't know much about this country beyond the stereotypes. And there's actual fear -- even among some progressives -- so we hoped that, by going to Iran, we could help dispel some of the myths.

    And we wanted to let the Iranian people know that not everyone in the US supports George Bush; that most of us deeply want peace and friendship with the other peoples of the world.

    On our first day in the capital, we attended the Friday noontime prayer service at the University of Tehran. Around 10,000 men and women attended this gathering. We had heard that these services ended with a rousing chant of Death to America! We were two hours into the service when we had to leave, and still no anti-US chants. We had to settle for a lot of warm smiles and handshakes.

    That evening, we flew 400 miles south to Shiraz, the city of poetry, nightingales, roses and (formerly) wine. With our tour guide and driver, we visited the tomb of the great Iranian poet Hafez, then drove an hour to Persepolis, the 2,500-year-old center of the First Persian Empire.

    From Shiraz, we headed through the desert to Yazd and then to the stunningly beautiful cultural center of Esfahan, with its 1.5 million trees for 1.5 million residents. We marveled at Esfahan's Imam Square -- the second largest enclosed public space in the world and observed the contrast between the luxurious palace of the US-installed Shah of Iran and the one-room apartment that was home to Iran's next leader, the Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini.

    From a Peace Museum to the Natanz Nuclear Facility
    In Esfahan, we met three veterans of the Eight-Year War with Iraq. One was the son of one of the nearly 300 people killed when the US warship Vincennes accidentally shot down a civilian Iran Air jetliner.

    At the Tehran Peace Museum, we met the head of a non-governmental organization that cares for victims of the chemical weapons used during the Eight-Year War. We met the head of an environmental group that publicizes the eco-effects that the war had on villages along the border. The war lasted from 1980 to 1988, longer than World War II, and took the lives of hundreds of thousands on both sides.

    We drove through Natanz, the site of Iran's controversial nuclear power facility. The facility is surrounded by anti-aircraft emplacements. It was one of the few places the guide asked us not to photograph. But the drive was on our itinerary, so the government knew we'd be passing the site.

    We visited a 700-plus-bed nursing home and learned that, in Iran, health care is free for those who can't afford to pay. In the US, some 47 million people don't have health insurance and can't afford to pay for major operations. Another quarter of our population has inadequate health insurance.

    In Iran, education is free through the university level. In the US, a university degree is increasingly beyond the reach of working-class students. In Iran, the price of gasoline is heavily subsidized, although a rationing program began just a few weeks before we arrived.

    By US standards, there's widespread poverty in Iran but I didn't see the kind of abject poverty I'd witnessed in the early '80s when I visited Mexico or the kind I regularly see in cities like New York or Washington. The reason seems to be that the government, working with the private organizations, provides the kind of social services that have been eroding back in the US under increasing attacks by neo-conservatives.

    Meeting the People
    Some of the best experiences we had were the conversations with people we just met on the street. When we said we were from the USA, they'd light up with warm smiles, shake hands, tell us how much they liked Americans. Bush was another matter. But in 11 days, not one person expressed any hostility toward us as individuals. The Iranian people seem to have mastered the art of distinguishing between a country's government and its people.

    One evening in Qom, I walked to an Internet cafe to send an e-mail to family members and got lost on the walk back to the hotel. I wound up meeting two brothers, one of them a theology student. They brought me back to the hotel in a taxi.

    In Esfahan, two other members of the delegation walking back to their hotel one evening were stopped by three different groups of Iranians who wanted to talk with them. On the streets and public places, we spoke with anyone we wanted. I made a point of trying to speak with people from as many social classes as possible.

    One afternoon, while driving to Qom, we stopped by the side of the highway and had tea with a family of goat herders. I learned to smoke a hookah in a 5,000-year-old town about 4,000 feet up in the mountains. I'm not saying we became experts on Iran, but I think we got a pretty fair look at the country and its people.

    Everyone from clerical figures to school children to about 300 members of the Revolutionary Guards (whom we met by chance outside a tourist site) treated us like long-lost relatives. Of course, some of that is because Iran, as a country that once hosted major caravan trade routes, has a long history of hospitality, something that's part of the national culture and of which people are justly proud. But it told us that no one -- neither parents, teachers, the media nor the government -- is teaching Iranians to hate Americans. All we saw was warmth and hospitality.

    That's important, because, if a government is planning aggression, the first thing it has to do is teach its people to fear and to hate the enemy. That was one important insight that helps evaluate whether the many charges leveled by the Bush administration against Iran are really credible.

    Imagine if You Lived in Iran
    It would be helpful if Americans could put themselves in the situation of an Iranian. On the west of your country, there is the violent US occupation of Iraq. To the east, there's the violent US occupation of Afghanistan. Farther west is Israel, which has threatened to drop a nuke on Natanz. Half the US Navy is in the Persian Gulf. There's a 28-year-old blanket of sanctions imposed by the US. And Bush and Cheney are threatening to bomb your country. That would be enough to make anyone paranoid, but paranoia is not the impression I got of the Iranian government.

    This is a proud country with a history that goes back 8,000 years. Its people were building temples and palaces when my people in Poland and Ireland were living in caves. Iran hasn't started a war in more than 200 years, but it's being threatened by a country that has been involved in wars of aggression almost non-stop since the end of the 19th century. The Iranian people have a right to defend themselves. And we in the US have a duty to support them -- by demanding that Washington get off their backs.

    The problems lie squarely with the US government, which is acting in the interests of the giant US corporations, particularly the oil industry. The charges that the Bush administration is making against Tehran are hypocritical and meant to distract world opinion from Washington's real aims.

    Bush accuses Tehran of meddling in Iraq, but it was the US that backed Iraq during the Eight-Year War, then imposed sanctions on Iraq, initiated the first Persian Gulf War, invaded that country in 2003 and still occupies it today. And Iraq isn't a US neighbor -- it's halfway around the world. How much more meddlesome could you be?

    Washington condemns Tehran for trying to develop nuclear power to reduce its reliance on oil. But today, more than 400 nuclear power plants are operating in 25 countries, supplying almost 17 percent of the world's electricity. More than 80 new reactors are under construction. So why is nuclear power OK for the US (not to mention Lithuania, Belgium and South Korea) but not for Iran?

    Washington argues that Iran's nuclear power program is just a step toward developing nuclear weapons. Iran denies this and there's no credible evidence to the contrary, but Bush knows it's an argument that scares the US public. On the other hand, it's all right for the US to have nuclear weapons -- along with Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. The US has 10,000 nuclear weapons, more than the rest of the world combined -- and is the only country that has ever used one.

    Bush and Cheney picture Iran as secretive, forbidding, threatening. But it's the US that has had sanctions against Iran for 28 years. Our delegation had no problem receiving visas from the Iranian government but our tour guide wouldn't be able to get a US visa to visit the States. People in our country are being taught to hate and fear Iranians, while Iranians are evidently being taught great tolerance toward other peoples of the world.

    Clearly, if Iran's greatest natural resource were sunflowers, there would be no conflict. But Iran's greatest resource is the world's third largest known oil reserve, after Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Whoever controls the oil of the Middle East controls the industrial world. And the megalomaniacs in the White House, the Pentagon and Wall Street want to control the world.

    Bush, Cheney, and Rice say all they want is to promote democracy in Iran. But when Iran had a Western-style democracy, back in the early '50s, the US overthrew it. Why? Because Iran became the first country in the Middle East to nationalize its oil. Washington's talk about democracy is pure hypocrisy.

    The US never imposed sanctions on South Africa when that country was run by a racist, apartheid regime. It never demanded democracy in South Africa. In fact, if we really had a democracy in the US, we wouldn't be in Iraq today, when the polls say that 70 percent of the public wants us to get out.

    What Bush wants -- and what virtually all the Republican and Democratic contenders for president want -- is the privatization of Iranian oil, so the US companies can exploit it. In Bush's mind, freedom and democracy are just code words for neo-liberal polices of privatization and foreign exploitation.

    We need to get the truth out about Iran and the escalating threat of war. Every time we say US Out of Iraq! we need to also say US Hands off Iran!

    Contact: Phil Wilayto, Editor, The Richmond Defender, PO Box 23202 Richmond, VA 23223. (804) 644-5834.

    For more information:
  • Campaign Against Sanctions & Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII)
  • The Peoples Peace Delegation to Iran, Virginia Anti-War Network,
  • The September/October issue of The Richmond Defender will include a four-page supplement with stories, reports and photos.

    For more information contact:

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