By Eric Stoner
Since coming to power, the Trump administration has had Iran in its crosshairs. The United States unilaterally pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal last year and reimposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran. With the other signatories doing little to cushion the blow, Iran now says it will breach part of the agreement. In all likelihood, this is exactly how hawks — like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton — hoped Iran would respond to U.S. provocations.
Ann Wright is intimately aware of how politicians use fear and distort reality to drum up support for war and its devastating consequences. She spent her career in the U.S. Army — rising to the rank of colonel — and served as a diplomat in the State Department, before resigning in opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Since then, she has been a courageous and steady voice at the forefront of the antiwar movement. With what seems like super-human endurance, she is constantly on the move — participating in countless actions for peace and traveling to countries at the receiving end of U.S. bombs.
I first had the good fortune to spend time with Ann on a trip to Afghanistan almost 10 years ago. Earlier this year, we traveled to Iran on a delegation organized by Code Pink, which has been organizing regular protests to challenge those ratcheting up tensions. With calls for war growing louder by the day, I spoke with Ann to see how she is reading the administration’s current machinations and what those inside and outside the system can do to avert another catastrophic war in the Middle East.
The invasion of Iraq was a critical turning point in your life. Can you explain why you resigned and the parallels you see between that moment and what is happening today?
The drive to war in Iran is so reminiscent of what was going on in 2002 with the war on Iraq. We’re still facing pretty much the same conditions. My letter of resignation was based on the Iraq war, but it also contained a couple of other things that are still very important. I was opposed to the Patriot Act and all the sweeping curtailments of civil liberties and privacy. And now, 16 years later, you look at what we face, and it’s much worse. Palestinian rights was another issue I put in my letter of resignation. And now you look at this plan that Jared Kushner has cooked up — it essentially gives everything to Israel and leaves the Palestinians in an even worse predicament.
And then there’s other aspects of my letter of resignation, like the issue of North Korea, where there has been some movement from the Trump administration. Even though we’re in another period of minor hostility, he at least has met with Kim Jong-un twice. I don’t think it’s lost. So the conditions under which I resigned in 2003 are very much the same as they are now in 2019.
At least the media is being a little better now about challenging some of the things the Trump administration is saying about Iran. They are trying to force the government to provide details about why Iran is this increased threat to U.S. national security, and they’re not getting much information back. So that is a little different from when the media in general just took what the Bush administration was saying at face value on weapons of mass destruction. That’s a little hopeful.
With the threats and talk of repositioning troops — along with the claims that Iran is responsible for attacks in the region — are we seeing the manufacturing of a conflict like we have so many times before?
The U.S. is doing everything it can to precipitate a conflict — to poke and provoke the Iranians to do something that the United States can have a military response to. When you look at what the Iranians are capable of doing in response, the Department of Defense is probably the greatest voice in the U.S. government against any sort of military action against Iran. They know full well that the Iranians have the capability of destroying, very quickly, a hell of a lot of U.S. military property and personnel.
You could do a limited air strike before the Iranians start blasting our planes out of the sky, but there’s no way in the world the United States could ever put troops in Iran. The U.S. military knows that the Iranian military will eat our lunch.
So you think those in the government — particularly the military and State Department — can play, or maybe already are playing, an important role in averting a new war with Iran?
In a subtle way, they are putting the brakes on a lot of things that come out of the White House. I can imagine that they are slow rolling thousands of initiatives that Bolton and his gang of warmongers are putting forward. The military can move very quickly if it wants to politically. But it also can slow down the political desires of politicians too.
The commander of that aircraft carrier said that we are not going through the Strait of Hormuz because we know that could lead to provocative actions. That’s a pretty clear statement, at least from the operational side of the Department of Defense, that they don’t want to get involved in this.
Do you have any advice for ways that ordinary people can encourage those inside the system to take a stand?
Just the tried and true stuff. I don’t have any magic bullet so to speak. Write letters to the editor explaining why you think the Trump policies are wrong and encourage people in the military to hold strong against these things that they know are dangerous to U.S. national security. Write letters to your Congress people. If there’s enough volume into the congressional offices, it will make a difference. We get feedback from offices all the time, saying, finally, there was enough citizen action that we’ve signed on as co-sponsors to whatever resolution it is. And sometimes you see Congress people changing their public stances in their speeches.
Without citizen activism, constituent activism, they’re not pushed to do anything. So that’s really important. And hitting the streets, having signs out on street corners, and hosting conferences or seminars to educate our community. And if the Trump administration moves in a very fast manner on any of this, we have to prepare to call for a quick mobilization with as many people out on the streets as we possibly can.
There were massive protests before the invasion of Iraq, but the Bush administration was not deterred. What have we learned from that experience, and how can we build a more impactful antiwar movement this time around?
We can elect politicians who are not warmongers. That’s number one. As long as we continue to elect these jerks that love war, we’re in big trouble. We’ve got to start holding these people accountable. The fact that the Obama administration would not hold any of the Bush administration people accountable shows the power of the politicians. It’s just like in other countries, where dictators are overthrown, but other dictators take them in and give them a life of luxury. That’s really the system we have in the United States, where all the presidents take care of each other.
The elites pardon each other and the citizenry go to jail. Reality Winner, who disclosed one classified document about Russians interfering with the elections, has been in jail for over two years now and has three more to go. It doesn’t give one a great feeling that everything will come out okay.
So how do you keep going, despite the bleak circumstances we face?
It’s important to look back through history. I’m reading a new book that Michael Smith wrote called “Lawyers for the Left.” It goes into the lives of probably 30 different lawyers from the 1950s onwards, who have been challenging the system on behalf of citizens. And it gives us the courage to keep going. We’re just part of a long, long struggle. I don’t know that we will ever win, but at least we will go down fighting for social justice and protection of rights for as many people as we possibly can.
We just have to keep giving people hope, not stay at home and watch the stupid TV. But to get up, do some stuff and be with like-minded people. If you leave them in their homes, everybody just gets dejected and immobilized. That’s why I think having weekly, or at least twice a month, events talking about social issues is really important. It’s important for organizations to step up to the plate now and help people understand that they do have a role. How effective we will be, who knows? But we know how effective it is if we don’t do anything.
You have traveled a lot to places that are targeted by our government militarily or economically. Why do you think it’s important for peace activists to make such trips?
Our government, no matter who’s in charge, Republicans and Democrats, they all lie to us. So it’s important that we go to the places where they don’t want us to go — to see with our own eyes what’s happening and talk to people in these countries.
What risks does this kind of travel involve, and how do you prepare for it?
Many of these are dangerous places in their own ways. When social issues flare up you might just be out on the streets at the wrong time or, as a former government worker, you might be accused of being a spy for the United States – even though I resigned in opposition to government policies. So that’s something that I always keep in mind.
One of the ways that I try to protect myself is to do a lot of writing and speaking, so that governments can see what my positions are — and that there’s a history of my protesting U.S. government actions — long before I go to these places. I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve been given visas to Iran twice.
With a couple months of hindsight on the trip we took together to Iran, what are your key takeaways from the meetings we had with officials and ordinary people?
From having spoken to several government officials, the history of what the United States has done to Iran is important, and a lot of Americans just don’t know about it. So we come back to write about it and reference the very educated, professional people we met and what their comments are about U.S.-Iranian relations.
And on the civilian side, ordinary Iranians told us about the effects of U.S. sanctions over decades, and the difficult situation that Iranian-Americans have in getting to Iran. And very few Iranians are now able to come to the U.S., including those who have family members here. It may backfire in Trump’s face because many of the Iranians that live here don’t support the revolution, but they support their own family members. Let’s hope that Trump’s policies will produce the votes that will get his sorry ass out of there.
We obviously want to avoid war but there are serious problems with the Iranian government. If we want to encourage a homegrown, grassroots pro-democracy movement inside the country, what can we do?
I think the best that we can do to create space for resolution of all of these issues is to speak out against sanctions and to get the United States to stop its pronouncements of regime change and military options. The feedback you get from Iranians is that the sanctions have made life much more difficult, and that they’re not willing to stand up.
But we aren’t willing to stand up against the Trump administration — to go out there and block roads and have thousands of people thrown in jail, and get beaten up by the cops. So why in the hell should we expect that of folks who know that they are going to get killed if they do that? We are very concerned about what goes on in their country, but we ought to be damned concerned about what’s going on in our own and work to stop it.
Eric Stoner is a co-founding editor at Waging Nonviolence and an adjunct professor at Saint Peter’s University, Saint Joseph’s College and Rutgers University. His articles have appeared in The Guardian, Mother Jones, Salon, The Nation, Sojourners and In These Times.