On June 20, Iran shot down a United States spy drone over the Sea of Hormuz. Iran claims it violated their airspace, and the US claims it was in international airspace. President Donald J Trump tweeted that the Iranians made a big mistake and geared up for a retaliatory strike; however, he retracted the order once learning it would kill 150 people, deeming that to be a disproportionate response. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security advisor and Iraq war alumnus John Bolon, and CIA director/torture prison executive Gina Haspel pressed for the attack and protested its withdrawal. It’s the latest step in a series of escalating tensions between the United States and Iran.
“I think the US government hasn’t really earned the Iranians’ trust over the decades,” says Payam Solhdoust, an activist with Brown War Watch. “Iranian citizens have a stronger knowledge/historical memory than Americans of United States foreign interventions.”
Brown War Watch is an anti-war group, made up of Brown University grad students and anti-war activists. The organization agitates against aggressive foreign policy and military interventionism. Solhdoust is Iranian himself and came to Rhode Island on an education visa. He’s both an activist for Brown War Watch and a victim of the Trump administration’s foreign policies.
“The first time I applied for my visa it took four months, right up until the semester started,” he explains. “And that was under Obama. Things have not gotten better.” Executive Order 13780, commonly known as the Muslim travel ban, invalidated Solhdoust’s visa, which was good for two years.
“After those years are over, Iranians aren’t allowed to re-apply for their visa within the country. They have to leave it, and you’re gonna be treated as if it’s the first time.” If you’re here for education, that’s not exactly a convenient policy.
There’s an added salt in the wound for Solhdoust. Many academic conferences in his field are now outside the US. They used to be inside our borders, but moved to other countries in order to include Iranian scholars. This helps Iranians outside the US, but in a simple twist of fate hurts the Iranians who are already here. It makes travel complicated; even going back home to visit or take care of a family emergency presents a huge risk. Among economic sanctions and increasing tensions, digital and traditional communications become a lot more difficult.
Our past is our prologue. Next month marks 66 years since the 1953 coup in Iran where the US and the United Kingdom overthrew democratically elected Prime Minister Muhammed Mosaddegh after the Iranian Parliament voted to nationalize the anglo-Iranian oil company.
“I think revisiting the coup is important because of the parallels with today’s situation,” says Rene Gatreaux, also an activist in Brown War Watch. “In both cases there was an initial economic attack in the form of sanctions and, at least back then, a blockade. It was followed by a kind of slander campaign; in the ‘50s this meant tying the Mosaddegh government to the communists who he had a terrible relationship with. And today, they try to connect Iran to Al-Qaeda.”
The US has a long, long, long history of meddling abroad like an imperial power exemplified by the treatment of Native Americans on the frontier as well as far away places like Hawaii and the Philippines, and coups, military invasions and propaganda.
“The mainstream media paints Trump as a kind of monster from outer space with no connection to history,” says Gatreaux. “In foreign policy he represents an intensification of existing practices.” During the Obama years, Democrats went to sleep as the administration increased drone strikes, codified the national surveillance state, invaded Libya and Syria, sold arms and provided advisors to Saudi Arabia as they waged genocide in Yemen.
“We had three years of war in Yemen [during the Obama years] and no one knew what Yemen was,” says Gatreaux. “Now that Trump is such a venel character, people are looking at all these pre-existing features.” To quote both Seymour Hersh and Future: masks off.
In service to its anti-war message, Brown War Watch stages protests, circulates petitions, meets local leaders and sponsors events. Most recently they’ve been holding a series of information sessions at Brown University, local schools and various other locales.
“Each time people were just moved by the fact that there’s so much history there and maybe that explains why Iranians don’t have the rosiest view of the Americans,” says Solhdoust. He says often, people who are even against intervention on principle sometimes still believe the demonized version of Iran as its sometimes portrayed in mainstream press. The media, they note, has been more even-handed toward Iran than they have been in the past, a side effect of the Trump White House.
“Overall a lot of the reporting is based in what journalists believe is happening at the ground, there’s some wording of articles I don’t appreciate.” says Solhdoust. “Sometimes I see headlines things like… ‘Iranian Military Celebrating the Downing of the Drone.'”
“I believe the exact terminology they used was ‘a feast,’ which is medieval sounding,” adds Gatreaux.
On May 29, Brown War Watch, along with members of the Rhode Island Peace Alliance, met with Jack Reed, Rhody’s senior senator and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services committee. Reed supports the Rhode Island military industry, which includes Electric Boat over in Quonset and Texatron, among others. The activists listed several requests in a letter handed to him during the meeting. It included rejecting campaign funding from defense contractors, working toward ratifying the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and voting against military action in Venezuela and Iran. Senator Reed frequently cites economic benefits of the Rhode Island military industry, as his website states: “In an effort to increase quality manufacturing jobs in Rhode Island, Senator Reed, as Chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower, secured over $17 billion for submarine shipbuilding, which will fortify the state’s defense and manufacturing industries for years to come.”
Gatreaux says, “I don’t think most RIers know that the deadliest nuclear beasts are lurking in their quiet New England shores.” Gateaux cites recent studies from Brown and the Political Economy Research Institute at UMASS Amherst that federal subsidies for clean energy and education lead to two to three times more jobs than military subsidies. Yet the military receives much more funding than the others.
The future of Iran-US relations is unclear. The Trump administration has assembled a similar — if not the same — class of all-American grifters and war profiteers who led America by the nose into invading Iraq. Many of them, Bolton in particular, just tried to destabilize Venezuela earlier this year. A safe bet is that the US will continue gliding o’er all while hiding its nakedly imperial activity. Meanwhile, Payam Solhdoust’s visa and his status is also up in the air. Both are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, especially while Donald Trump is president.