A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
From the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953 to the assassination of Soleimani in 2020, US policy in Iran has been one disaster after another. In this essay, we hear a first-hand account from Mel Packer who was one of the Americans who visited Iran during the hostage crisis of 1980.
On Feb 8, 1980, in my 35th year, I stepped from a plane onto the tarmac of the airport in Tehran, Iran, and into the Iranian Revolution and the simmering Iran Hostage Crisis.
Just a few days before, I had loaded 20+ tons of steel coils onto my 40-foot flatbed trailer at the Irvin Works and then parked the rig in front of my home on the then-cobblestoned Hazelwood Ave, taking a nap before the usual all-night drive to deliver the load to some distant point.
It felt like fantasy, unreal, there I was in Tehran having never crossed an ocean before, defying my own government’s travel ban to spend 10 days dialoguing with the students holding hostage 52 US Embassy staffers. Their demand? Return the Shah of Iran to stand trial for his crimes.
Did I know what I was hoping to accomplish? Hell no, and I suspect most of the other 49 Americans in the delegation weren’t too sure, either. But all of us knew that we didn’t want a war with Iran and hoped that some peaceful dialogue might help prevent that looming disaster.
We were a pretty diverse group, industrial workers, clergy, college professors, all with some history of involvement in labor and/or social justice campaigns. We were all aware of our government’s bloody history in Iran. In 1953, our CIA boastfully sponsored the violent overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister, Muhammed Mossadegh, because he was demanding that Iranian oil profits be shared with the Iranian people and not stolen by British and US oil companies. In his place, the CIA installed Mohammed Reza Pahlavi who took the title of Shah, (King of Kings).
Once the Shah assumed power, Iranian oil remained under control of western oil companies and the Shah received tens of millions of dollars in U.S. “foreign aid” which he used to finance a decades long reign of terror that imprisoned, tortured, and murdered tens of thousands of Iranian oppositionists. His brutal dictatorship ruled until his overthrow in 1979 by a predominantly Islamist revolution with support from some secular forces.
For some in our group, it was a surprise that our visible presence on the streets of Tehran did not elicit hostile responses. In fact, we learned from conversations with Iranians that the ever present and often chanted “Death to America” slogan simply referred to US policy and not US citizens. The Iranians understood that we had little influence over our own foreign policy. Unfortunately, with the recent US drone assassination of Qassim Soleimani, perhaps the top military leader of Iran, we’ve learned that this remains true. Our foreign policy is controlled by those who think that diplomacy comes from the barrel of a gun.
Now, almost 40 years later, Soleimani’s recent assassination makes me once again fear that those who profit from conflict, the manipulators of our disgraced, failing, and outdated foreign policy, will take us into another war that cannot be won unless one defines winning as bombing every perceived enemy, civilian and military alike, into dust. We invaded the Middle East in the name of fighting terror and building democracy, but the physical destruction and hundreds of thousands killed in doing so accomplished neither, and the cost of this has affected us here in the U.S. as well.
We have spent much of our children’s futures on fighting endless wars while public education fails, millions are denied health care, environmental disasters loom daily, life spans continue to decrease, millions lack affordable housing, income inequality rivals that of civilizations marked by slavery, white nationalism becomes almost mainstream, and our infrastructure disintegrates like sand castles in the surf. All this in the alleged “richest” nation on earth, a nation some call the “poorest rich nation on earth”.
Is this the victory that was promised to us and those we invaded? Yes, I suppose, but only if you are a military contractor whose profits have soared from the over 6 trillion dollars given them, or a member of either party in Congress who take the bribes we call campaign contributions.
Despite what the warmakers tell us, this must and can stop. The people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Iran are not our enemies. I learned that 40 years ago on the streets of Tehran and it remains so today.
Power taken by the force of our bombs and drones is a fleeting power certain to be eventually defeated and cannot be maintained by continuing to kill the residents of nations we call the enemy. It is an illusory power, that taken by guns. Like a schoolyard bully, our diplomacy by weaponry may win a battle, but will lose the war.
Whether we count from the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953, or the assassination of Soleimani in 2020, the first shots in what most call our “Endless War” have already been fired. And If we cannot rein in the masters of war, too many of us, Iranians and Americans alike, may not be around to hear the last shots.
40 years ago, the Iranian hostage crisis gripped the world, with details unfolding nightly on television. But one story remains untold. Desperate to get their message out, the hostage takers invited 50 ordinary Americans to visit Iran. For the Americans, this high-risk trip held the tantalising possibility of securing the release of hostages. What transpired was a journey quite unlike any of them had planned. Using archive of the visit, interviews with former Iranian hostage takers in Iran and their American visitors, including Mel Packer, we hear about their hopes and misgivings at the time and their reflections 40 years on.
Essay copyright 2020 Mel Packer.
Mel Packer is an activist in the peace and justice movement in Pittsburgh.
Qasem Soleimani (1957 – 2020) was an Iranian major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and commander of the division primarily responsible for extraterritorial military and clandestine operations. He was assassinated by a US drone on January 3, 2020.