Medea Benjamin talks about her book, Inside Iran


Social-justice filmmakers are in constant search for important and crucial sources for subjects for their films. The new book by Medea Benjamin, Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran, opens new horizons for those in search of captivating and pertinent issues.

Inside Iran is a very honest and precise look into the relationship between Iran and the USA. The current U.S. administration’s policy of imposing unfair sanctions and beating the war drum by leaving the Iran Nuclear deal puts the lives of millions of Iranians at risk.

Iran is among the nations listed in the US travel ban, and therefore Iranian citizens are banned from entering the United States for educational purposes, visiting family members, or even seeking urgent medical help. (Bijan Tehrani)

Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of the women-led peace group CODEPINK and the co-founder of the human rights group Global Exchange. She has been an advocate for social justice for more than 40 years. Described as “one of America’s most committed — and most effective — fighters for human rights” by New York Newsday, and “one of the high profile leaders of the peace movement” by the Los Angeles Times, she was one of 1,000 exemplary women from 140 countries nominated to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the millions of women who do the essential work of peace worldwide.

She is the author of ten books, including Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control and Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection. Her most recent book, Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran, is part of a campaign to prevent a war with Iran and instead promote normal trade and diplomatic relations.

Her articles appear regularly in outlets such as The Guardian, The Huffington Post, CommonDreams, Alternet and The Hill.

Bijan Tehrani: Please tell us about your involvement in Iran matters
Medea Benjamin: I’ve become obsessed with Iran because for the last 10 years I’ve been involved in trying to stop a war. I’ve seen how the US invasion of Iraq has created so much misery for so many people in the region. I’ve seen what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening in Libya, and I fear the same kind of fate for Iran.
While we’re not able to turn back the clock to stop the US invasion of Iraq or interventions in the other regions, at least we could try to stop a war in Iran. That is so essential and that’s why I wrote the book.

BT: What is been the reaction of the Iranians to your book “Inside Iran”?
MB: It has been interesting. Some Iranians have felt that I am too critical of the regime right now, and some feel that I’m not critical enough. Some feel that I was too critical of previous regimes, like under the Shah, some say not critical enough. Then many Iranians feel like I’m giving a very objective picture and have agreed with everything I’ve said.

When you have a country of 80 million people and a very educated, sophisticated population, and then add the diaspora of Iranians who live all over the world, you’re going to get many kinds of opinions.
It was hard to write the book because it is hard to find the right tone, especially when you’re trying to prevent a war, but you don’t want to come across as supportive of the current government either. It’s a very fine line to walk and I tried carefully to do that.

BT: And reaction of the Americans to the book?
MB: Many Americans have been surprised to learn about the ancient history of Iran and how Iran has really led the way in terms of civilization and experimenting with different forms of government. In more recent history, Iran has had a rich history of leftist organizing, socialist parties, and democratic forms of government.
They also see that during the dark days of the Shah, there was so much organizing but that it was precisely the US overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Mosaddegh that led to the present Islamic Republic government. When the Shah was overthrown, the sector of society that had the most advantage in terms of organizing were the clerics.

I think forming a direct line between US military intervention in 1953, the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, and the present government makes it clear to Americans how much the US interference in the history of Iran has shaped the present animosity between US and Iran.

BT: There are many Iranian-Americans and Americans who support sanctions and military action against Iran, what do you think about this kind of solutions?
MB: First of all, it’s important to recognize that sanctions are warfare in a different form. Sanctions hurt ordinary Iranians. It’s not high-level people in the government who have a hard time finding food and medicines and enough money to take care of their families. It’s ordinary Iranians who feel the impact of the tremendous devaluation of the rial and the tripling of prices.
These sanctions are designed to make the Iranian people rise up and overthrow their government. But many Iranians that I talk to look around the region and say, “What is the alternative?” They see chaos all around them and they say, “We would rather reform our own government than have an abrupt overthrow that would open the way to an even worse situation.”

So I think anybody who is supportive of tighter sanctions or US military intervention is way off mark and doesn’t understand how dangerous this is.

Military intervention would be disastrous. The Iranian military is well trained and would fight back ferociously. The Iranian government has already implied that it could choke off traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, which would be disastrous for the shipping of oil. There are also US military bases surrounding Iran, and Iran could attack those military bases or have its allies, the Shia militia in Iraq or Hezbollah in Lebanon, attack US bases or US allies. So this could quickly become a regional conflagration that is even worse than anything else we have seen so far in the Middle East.

And then there is the issue of the chaos inside Iran. If there were an uprising, it could lead to chaos with different minority groups trying to get independence or it could lead to a civil war between secular and religious folks. It could lead to a lot of internal strife, even paving the way for groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS to start doing attacks inside Iran. So the alternatives would be catastrophic. People are already very scared that the terrorist attack on a military parade in the city of Ahvaz in mid-September is a preview for more terrible attacks in the future.

BT: Do you think the same fate of Iraq is waiting for Iran?
MB: I remember being in Iraq before the US invasion. It was under Saddam Hussein, and people would take us aside and whisper, “We hate our government, we want to change it, but we don’t want it to happen from outside intervention.” And lo and behold, the US intervened, and now look at all the chaos and misery that has ensued in Iraq.

Iranians would be facing the same fate. It’s important to recognize the sovereignty of the Iranian people, to understand that it is only the Iranian people who can change their own government, and to understand that throughout the history of Iran, people have done just that.
Iranians are sophisticated. They’re educated. They’re capable. There have been numerous reforms over these last 40 years. It’s not enough, and it’s not fast enough, and there are certainly people who are anxious to see a total overthrow of this government. But change has to come from the inside for it to be authentic and lasting.

BT: We witness a raise in social media posts against Iran
MB: I am certain that there are elements of the US government that are doing dirty tricks to sow discord inside Iran. This is nothing new. The US has been using taxpayer dollars to foment discontent in Iran for the last 40 years. There’s no reason to doubt that it’s happening now. We know that the administration just created a new Iran Action Group to work even more meticulously on this.

There is a plan in the works to foment discontent, to fund groups that would create movements, to try to get independence for ethnic minority groups, to promote demonstrations against the government, to have one faction pitted against another one.

It is ironic that at a time when we’re so concerned about Russian meddling in US affairs, the US is doing this in such an overt and dangerous way inside Iran. It is also threatening countries around the world, telling them that if they do business with Iran, they will face sanctions from the most powerful economy in the world: The United States. What greater kind of interference, short of military interference, could there be?

BT: What can filmmakers do to avoid a war against Iran?
MB: It’s so critical that we do everything we can to try to humanize the Iranian people in the eyes of ordinary Americans. The Trump administration lumps Iranians together with the government of Iran, which it calls the ‘worst terrorist state in the world’ and puts all Iranians on the list of people who are not allowed into the United States, the list known as the Muslim Ban. This creates an image of Iran as terrorists, even though there has never been an Iranian who has conducted any terrorist activity on US soil.
So culture can play a critical role. The film industry in Iran is so beautiful; it is so sophisticated, and there are so many fabulous films that portray Iranians as ordinary people with the same kinds of hopes and desires as people around the world. There is incredible literature and poetry and visual art going back centuries. All of this is important to show the American people.

I’ve been going around with my new book Inside Iran to try to use it as a vehicle for getting people to care more and learn more about Iran. We’re going to be doing photo exhibits and taking them into the halls of Congress. We’re doing videos with Iranians to show how the sanctions are hurting ordinary people. We have a new social media campaign where we are sending messages of friendship to Iran, in Farsi, and encouraging Iranians to send messages back. We are also planning a large peace delegation to Iran and organizing a Summit on Iran in Washington DC on December 1 that will be open to the public.

There are many ways that culture can play such a critical role right now. In fact, I would say there’s probably nothing more important than using Iranian literature, art, music and cinema to show the beauty of the Iranian people and the extraordinary Iranian civilization. This will give people a sense that Iranians can and must determine their own future.

BT: What should be Iranian-American reactions?
MB: Iranians in the diaspora must be smart. I know that many of them came here fleeing either the Shah or the current regime and have very hard feelings against the regime. It’s important to put this in the context that sanctions and war will make the situation worse. We need the voices of Iranians in the diaspora to be saying this.
We’ve been going in the halls of Congress with people from Iran who have been imprisoned and tortured by this government and they are incredible spokespeople. When they say to a senator, “These sanctions are hurting my family, and people in Iran are afraid of what war will bring,” it is very important. They are the most legitimate voices in terms of saying that the best way to promote greater democracy inside Iran is to stop the sanctions and threat of war.

Iranian-Americans and Iranians in Europe and elsewhere have a critical role to play and it’s important that they don’t lose this historic moment. I know many Iraqis who look back and wish they did more to stop the US from invading their country. Let’s not let it happen to Iran.

BT: US government is trying to offer MeK or Reza Pahlavi as an alternate to the Iranian government, what do you think about this?
MB: This is very dangerous and misguided, and it just doesn’t work. Most Iranians don’t want to go back to the past, they want to go into the future. They look back at the Shah’s regime and remember the terrible repression. They look at the MeK, the Mujahidin, and they see an organization that sided with Saddam Hussein in Iraq during the terribly bloody Iraq-Iran war from 1980 to 1988 and say, “How could anybody who sided with Saddam Hussein, who got weapons and training from Saddam Hussein to go into Iran and blow up civilians, be considered a legitimate group?”

It’s dangerous that the Trump administration is filled with MeK supporters–John Bolton who received over $150,000 from the MeK for speaking and Rudy Giuliani who has been one of the major speakers at their gatherings. These officials don’t understand that the MeK has virtually no base of support inside Iran.

The administration is also using the same misguided tactic that they used in the case of Iraq of finding somebody in the diaspora, like Ahmed Chalabi, and thinking they could just parachute him back into Iraq and somehow this would be a legitimate government. It’s even worse in the case of Iran, because the MeK is considered a terrorist organization by most Iranians, and the Shah is also somebody who represents a very painful period in the past.
The administration really has no plan B. They can invade, they can create chaos, but they have no idea how they would put a new government in place that could unite the Iranian people.

BT: US government thinks that Iran is an easy target
MB: Iran is not an easy target, because it is an enormous country with a very large military. But even much smaller countries that one might have thought were easy targets have not been easy. The US is still in Afghanistan over 16 years later, and the Taliban controls large swaths of the country. Iraq is still in a very unstable situation because the US and Iran are vying for influence and have not been able to find leaders who can unite the country. Look at Libya. The “easy part” was overthrowing Gaddafi but now you have warlords controlling different parts of the country. It’s become a place for modern-day slavery and a departure point for thousands and thousands of refugees who are flooding Europe, with many poor souls drowning in the ocean along the way.

If you look back at recent history, the invasions have been so catastrophic. Iran is a much larger country with a much more developed military that has had plenty of time to develop plans for fighting back. Just think of the chaos that could happen to the entire world economy if Iran was able to disrupt the oil shipped through the Strait of Hormuz, which represents about 30 or 40% of global oil shipments. This could cause a global economic ripple effect that would be very disastrous even for people in the United States.

The American public must get smart now. We are spending over half of our discretionary funds on the military, and if we get involved in a war with Iran, the Pentagon is going to ask for even more funds. This comes out of critical programs that we need in this country from health to education to infrastructure. So let’s not let the war hawks and warmongers have the last word on this. Let’s make our message of “No War With Iran” clear, before it’s too late.


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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