Iran, We Hardly Know Ye

I would like to say that I am disappointed by this new round of sanctions leveled against Iran by Congress, but the sad fact is that I didn't expect anything less than the aggressive wrong-headedness displayed by our elected legislators last week. And so, as the war drummers up their aggressive tempo against Iran, I'd like to take this moment to share some facts, and a few of my own experiences living in that country.

In 2008, I made a home for myself in the Islamic Republic of Iran. I had hoped at that time to foster cultural exchanges between my home country, Brazil, and Iran. It was indeed for me a shock of cultural bipolarity, going from bikinis in sultry, carnal Brazil, to long sleeves and headscarves in the more socially-conservative Islamic Republic. Despite this, however, I found the Iranian people to be exceedingly warm, generous, cultured, educated, and fun.

One thing that struck me immediately about Iran was how overwhelmingly young the country is. About one-third of the Iranian population is under the age of thirty, one quarter being 15-years-old or younger, and I found that kids in Tehran, for better or worse, are not so different from kids in any other developed nation. They love junk food, American music, and pop culture. Hip-hop is considered "un-Islamic" by the regime and is therefore banned, though this has not stopped rappers like Hichkas from gaining an underground following in Iran. As a zealot for free-speech, I helped produce a video for the rapper, and although he and his crew were jailed in the process, they promptly returned to finishing their music video after they were released.

Excerpt from a Cultures of Resistance feature documentary:

Iran is a multi-ethnic nation of Azeris, Baluchis, Arabs, Armenians, and Kurds, in addition to the dominant Persian population, and is also home to various religions including Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Baha'i and the ancient faith of Zoroastrianism. I was able to learn a bit about Iran's Kurdish minority through my friendship with classical musician Kayhan Kalhor, a virtuoso of the kamanche (an early predecessor to the violin). When I first met Kalhor, he had just conceived his album 'Silent City' -- a tribute to the Kurdish town of Halabja, where a U.S.-backed Saddam Hussein unleashed a poisonous gas attack, immediately killing around 7,000 civilians and wounding 11,000 more. His hope, he told me, is that through his music the world will not forget what happened in Halabja, and will be cautious not to repeat such an atrocity. I thought this was a noble ambition, particularly when I considered that the attack on Halabja was at the time ignored by the international community, under pressure from the United States (who then deceitfully and unsuccessfully attempted to blame Iran for the attack, thus absolving them of their complicity in the massacre).

I was especially curious to hear what the average Iranian thought of the state of Israel. Israel, after all, has been the principal agitator for a military conflict between the US and Iran, and an impatient one at that. Though not a signatory of the NPT, the state of Israel is an illegal nuclear power -- the only nuclear power in the region -- and, along with the US, has long sought to contain the nuclear ambitions of Iran -- a fully compliant member of the NPT. Most Iranians were quick to point out this hypocrisy, that Israel's illegal and secret arsenal of nuclear weapons is completely overlooked by America and Europe, while Iran suffers increased isolation and provocation despite full compliance. Many were also quick to point out the distinction between Judaism and Zionism -- the former represented a beautiful and important monotheistic religion -- one which has existed in Iran for 3,000 years -- while the latter signaled racism and aggression to the average Iranian. In general, however, most Iranians are not represented by the aggressive posturing of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Women comprise around 65% of university students in Iran, and while I do not wish to whitewash the unacceptable political restrictions on women and minorities there, it should be noted that females hold prominent positions across the professional spectrum. I had the honor of meeting and interviewing one of these women, distinguished Iranian jurist and Nobel peace-prize winner Shirin Ebadi. Ebadi is a dogged advocate for the rights of women, children, and minorities in Iran, and is a frequent target of harassment by the Iranian government. The Dalai Lama Center for Peace introduced me to Ebadi, whom I had long admired for her outspoken approach in the face of government hostility. After our interview, I offered her the support of our foundation but she politely declined -- receiving support from an American organization would signal to the government a foreign-backed effort to promote regime change in Iran.

This is a sentiment worth our consideration, especially now as hawks in the U.S. and Israel are cynically exploiting last year's massive electoral protests and "Green Movement" to isolate Iran. Although the Iranian people are under the control of a repressive government, we should have no illusions in thinking that they are crying out for another American-style regime change. To the contrary, what is now a fractious body politic will unite to stand against such aggression, essentially undermining the movement for reform. The Iranians are a people profoundly aware of their illustrious, millennia-old history, including the darker chapters of this story, in which the United States has played no small part. When considering Iran here in America, we seem to have an anti-historical fixation on one singular event, namely the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini and subsequent hostage crisis, often with no mention of the decades which preceded it: how the CIA in 1953 orchestrated the collapse of the democratic government of Mohammed Mossadegh (who was ousted for asserting that Iranian oil profits should be for the Iranian people) in favor of the brutal, tyrannical monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, which was amenable to British and American control of their considerable oil and gas reserves. Given this history of degradation and abuse perpetrated by the U.S. government against the Iranian people, it is ludicrous to think that any Iranian, wherever on the political spectrum, will welcome American meddling in the political affairs of Iran.

This recent round of sanctions is an unjust act of economic warfare against the people of Iran, and another step in the wrong direction on our calamitous approach both to that country and to the region at large. It is high time that we assert another kind of two-state solution, namely that the U.S. shake off the heavy hand of the Israeli lobby to begin acting in the interests of Americans. As citizens living in the lap of hegemony, it is our duty to better understand the Iranian people who our leaders (and their foreign backers) seek to isolate, and demand of our elected representatives that they act responsibly, with humanity, in our name.