In Defense of Iran

Reviewed by Margaret Sarfehjooy

Women Against Military Madness Newsletter, June 2009


The WAMM Middle East Committee hosted Phil Wilayto as part of his book tour on In Defense of Iran: Notes from a U.S. Peace Delegation’s Journey Through the Islamic Republic. This entertaining and well-researched book describes the tour of Iran Wilayto took with four other Virginia activists in 2007.

Wilayto’s goal is to set the record straight on “lies and propaganda constructed by the Washington politicians, the oil industry lobbyists, the bought-and-paid-for political pundits and the profit-driven commercial news media.” As Wilayto met with students, workers, goat herders, businesspeople, clerics, government officials, even members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, he found a country rich in culture and diversity, whose people were friendly and welcoming to Americans. While he heard an array of political opinions, with praise and criticism of their government’s policies, he didn’t hear any pleas to be saved by America nor did he find any interest in a military confrontation with the U.S.

Wilayto writes, “So the first thing to understand about Iran is that it can’t be judged solely by one standard. It has seen many invasions, many rebellions, many attempts at creating a truly free and democratic society. And it is a society that is perfectly capable of proceeding on that path, without “help” from the very countries that have in the past subverted its attempts at freedom. What it can use, especially in this difficult time, is determined solidarity from the progressive people of the world.”

Questions such as “Does Iran have nuclear weapons?” “Is Iran a threat to Israel?” “Does Iran support terrorism?” and others are answered with a combination of history, facts, scholarly journalism, and political analysis, all extensively researched.

Besides being a must-have for anyone who wants to learn about the history of Iran, U.S. involvement, and recent political changes, this book is full of fascinating insights and contradictions of this culturally rich, diverse and evolving country. Examples: Women must cover their hair, arms and legs, but 65 to 70 percent of university students are now women; women and men can use Iranian taxis, but women who prefer to ride without men can use a taxi company created only for women; abortion is illegal but Iran is the only country that requires couples to take a class on modern contraception before being issued a marriage license; Iran has become the adopted home for many Iraqi and Afghani refugees with 12.5 percent of Afghanistan’s 25 million people now living in Iran.

A veteran organizer whose activism has spanned the full range, from entrenched racism in the United States to Washington’s adventurism abroad, Wilayto offers keen observations on how Iran’s social reforms affect class structure. “Public education in Iran is free, up to and including the university level. Poverty has been reduced to one-eighth of what it was under the shah. Health care is free for those who can’t afford to pay. Small wonder that the poor—including poor women – tend to support the government, while the more secular and affluent middle class is the major source of anti-government resentment.”

Wilayto’s background in investigative journalism led him to uncover disturbing connections between wealthy, neo-conservative foundations and their financing of popular books and movies that reinforce negative stereotypes of Iranians. Some of his harshest criticism goes to Dr. Azar Nafisi, the author of the bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran. Dr. Nafisi’s acknowledgment at the end of her book of a generous grant from the Smith Richardson Foundation raised red flags to Phil, who spent years researching and writing about neocon foundations and their role in shaping public opinion and government policies.

“Smith Richardson’s real issue, of course, isn’t democracy or women’s rights, but the fact that Iran pursues an independent foreign policy and defends its vast oil wealth from encroachments by multinational corporations. . . . Dr. Nafisi’s acknowledgment didn’t say just how “generous” Smith Richardson was, but a little digging turned up copies of the foundations’ annual reports. From 1998 to 2004, Dr. Nafisi received six grants totaling $675,500 from the Smith Richardson Foundation, Inc. Very generous indeed. . . . Why is this an issue? Because Dr. Nafisi’s heavily promoted portrayal of Iran helps create and reinforce the stereotype held by most people in the United States. That stereotype is reinforced by Western journalists and writers whose sources come from a relatively narrow, Western-oriented layer of Iranian society. The resulting false popular view of Iran then becomes the political context within which we evaluate current events.”

Reading Lolita in Tehran and other neocon-funded books and movies offer a biased, simplified view of Iran that is promoted by policy-makers, one that reinforces and encourages the belief of American superiority and exceptionialism that we (the U.S.) must “save” these repressed Iranian women from the terror of their own culture. Instead of focusing on our own eroding civil and human rights, we are encouraged to patronize, condemn, sanction, and attack a country whose people have a right to self-determination and are quite capable of reforming their own country. If more people read In Defense of Iran, they would gain a better understanding and appreciation of the Iranian culture and be able to refute the lies and propaganda that is preparing us for another war.

Phil Wilayto wrote, “The goal of this effort is to try and help the public understand, just as we were lied to about Iraq, resulting in an extremely costly and unjust war, we are now being lied to again, about Iran.”

The Best Defense Iran Could Have


By David Swanson

Given the fates of the other two members of Bush’s axis of evil, some would argue that the best defense Iran could have would be a nuclear bomb.  They would, however, be wildly wrong.  The best defense Iran could have would be awareness in the minds of Americans of who the Iranian people are, a people with great love and affection for the American people, great generosity toward others, and great commitment to peace.  The best way I know that this defense could be created would be for Americans to give every other American they can a copy of Phil Wilayto’s new book <> “In Defense of Iran: Notes from a U.S. Peace Delegation’s Journey Through the Islamic Republic.”

And an amazing journey it is, visiting people and places in Iran that you would not expect from either Iran’s portrayal in the corporate media or from the position I’ve taken in the previous paragraph.  Wilayto does not air brush Iran’s flaws or exaggerate its achievements, but he does set them in proper context and provide illuminating comparisons with other countries, especially our own.  His tale mixes travel records with history and political argument to provide the best window I’ve found through which to peer halfway around the globe and into a complex and conventionally caricatured culture.  Wilayto even recounts running into a U.S. television crew in Iran and shows us what they reported as well as what was really there.

Wilayto’s book provides an understanding, among much else, of the following:

Everyone in Iran is provided with health care.

In Iran abortion is illegal, male sterilization legal, and couples required to take a class on modern contraception before marrying.  A condom factory in Tehran produces 45 million condoms per year in 30 colors, shapes, and flavors.

In Iran live Persians, Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Baluchis, Bakhtyaris, Lurs, Armenians, Assyrians, Jews, Brahuis, and Iranians of African descent.  Israel has had very little luck offering Iranian Jews large sums of money to move to Israel.  Minorities are guaranteed representation in Iran’s government.

The CIA overthrew Iran’s democratically elected leader in 1953 for British oil interests repackaged as Cold War struggle.  Fear of another CIA coup was a major cause of Iranian students seizing American hostages in 1979.  The hostage taking caused President Jimmy Carter to cut diplomatic ties and create sanctions that remain in place today.

Iranians like to put hard sugar in their mouths and sip tea through it.

The issue at the heart of U.S.-Iranian relations is Iran’s nationalization or privatization of oil.  Working class Iranians tend to favor nationalization and tend to be more religious, while those speaking out for more personal freedoms tend to be wealthy and to favor privatization.

When Iranians, including members of the military unit that the United States has bizarrely labeled a terrorist group, meet Americans in Iran they are thrilled, friendly, delighted, and eager to offer their assistance.

Iran has not attacked anyone in centuries but was attacked by Iraq with support from the United States, in a brutal eight-year war that included the use, by Iraq, of chemical weapons.  A major Iranian peace museum documents the horrors of war.

Women and men can use Iranian taxis, but women who prefer to ride without men can use a taxi company created only for women.

Iran opposed Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, and the Taliban, and assisted the United States in Afghanistan.

In 1988 a U.S. ship shot down an Iranian passenger plane, killing all 290 passengers.  President Reagan gave the ship’s officers medals, and President Bush I. swore he would never apologize for it, something neither of his presidential successors has done either.

Literacy for Iranian women has climbed from 25 percent in 1970 under the U.S. backed shah to 80 percent in 2007, and school enrollment from 60 percent in 1970 to 90 percent in 2000.  Between 65 and 70 percent of university students are women.

In 2003 Iran offered to negotiate, including putting its relationship with Israel and its nuclear energy program on the table, and President Bush II. said no.

Hand guns and alcohol are banned.  A strong social safety net prevents poverty.  Women feel safe walking alone at night.

Iran has an all-female fire department.  U.S. cities banned female firefighters until 1974.

The president of Iran proposed regime change in Israel, not genocide of Israelis, and is open to a two-state solution for Palestine.

Working women get 90 days maternity leave at two-thirds pay.

Iran ranks high in lists of nations with rights for workers.  The right to organize and strike is not respected.  But overtime is voluntary and paid at 140 percent.  Vacations are four weeks.  Wages cannot be varied on the basis of age, gender, race, ethnic origin, or political or religious convictions.  Those laid off get severance pay.  Those falsely accused of crimes get back pay and retain their jobs.

The above list is a fraction of the topics addressed brilliantly in Wilayto’s book.  He also addresses the topic of nuclear energy, arguing that Iran’s oil supply will run out and that therefore Iran must build nuclear energy.  However, there are alternatives that Wilayto does not discuss.

Of course, Iran’s and everyone’s oil supplies will indeed run out, although we’ll probably destroy the planet for human life if we exhaust those supplies.  On the other hand, nuclear energy is extremely dangerous as well.  One alternative that is viable in Iran is wind.

CODEPINK Women for Peace recently announced the creation of a company called Winds of Change, which will invest in Iranian wind energy, specifically in the Saba Niroo Wind Company, as well as in a campaign to end sanctions.  Saba Niroo builds wind farms in Iran, but has been forced to halt production because the United States has pressured the Danish wind company Vestas to deny the Iranian company necessary parts.

“It’s ironic that the West is so vehemently opposed to Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear energy, but it is sabotaging our efforts to develop clean energy sources like wind,” said Nader Niktabe, Sara Niroo’s managing director.

“Under present U.S. law, companies that invest in Iran are subject to a $1 million fine,” said Medea Benjamin, CODEPINK co-founder.  “We’re challenging those unproductive restrictions and pushing the Obama administration to lift sanctions and establish peaceful relations with Iran.”

David Swanson is the author of the upcoming book “Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union” by Seven Stories Press and of the introduction to “The 35 Articles of Impeachment and the Case for Prosecuting George W. Bush” published by Feral House and available at  Swanson holds a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and as a communications director, with jobs including press secretary for Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 presidential campaign, media coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association, and three years as communications coordinator for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Swanson is Co-Founder of, creator of and Washington Director of, a board member of Progressive Democrats of America, the Backbone Campaign, and Voters for Peace, and a member of the legislative working group of United for Peace and Justice.

Iranians Love Mint Condoms, Author Finds


Chris Dovi, Style Weekly, Jan. 7, 2009


The rush to find the perfect Christmas gift is over, so may we recommend an ideal Valentine for that special someone?

“In Defense of Iran,” a new book by local journalist and peace activist Phil Wilayto may not smell as sweet as a dozen roses, but your special someone is certain to learn a thing or two about why opposites attract.


The book’s simple premise, he says, was to take the filter of politics and nationalistic egoism off of American’s periscope of Iran, its people and government.


“[I] wanted to do it in defiance of the [President George W.] Bush administration’s portrayal of Iran as a hostile country to Americans,” says Wilayto, who also publishes the Richmond Defender newspaper and is a founder of Richmond-based Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality.


In preparing for the book, Wilayto did the international travel version of speed dating — an intensive eleven-day, 1,700-mile tour of Iran in July of 2007 with a small delegation, followed by countless hours of research back home. It was hardly enough to make him the definitive expert, he says, “but what we did learn was that the popular image of Iran is completely inaccurate.”


That image, one of “very oppressed people — very fanatical and probably hostile,” Wilayto says, was “exactly the opposite of what we found.”


In fact Iranians love Americans, says Wilayto, they just have a funny way of showing it at the United Nations.


“We felt perfectly at ease no matter where we were in the country — including during a chance encounter with 300 members of the Revolutionary Guard about two months before the Bush administration declared them a terrorist organization,” Wilayto says.


That’s not to say Wilayto gives Iran and its sometimes hyper-charged political rhetoric an easy pass: “There’s something here to offend everybody,” says the author.


But while picking through the prickly geopolitical love-hate marriage that has been U.S.-Iranian relations for the past 29 years, Wilayto dissects some surprising inaccuracies about Iranian culture.


Wilayto found an Iran where contraception is encouraged and free to all; where gay sex is outlawed, but where the government subsidizes sex change operations and social programs for transgender citizens; and where state opposition to abortion is similar to policies in Ireland.


“Iran has the only state-sponsored condom factory in the Middle East,” he says. “Favorite color, pink. Favorite flavor, mint.”


Fifteen chapters and 40 pages of carefully researched footnotes later, Wilayto says, and detractors may think he took a sip or two of Iran’s state-sponsored Kool-Aid. But he wears no blinders in his view of Iran — or of the United States.


“Does this mean everything [in Iran] is great? No,” says Wilayto, of his book’s conclusions. “It just means things are far more complex there than we are led to believe by our government.”


The book is available at Chop Suey Books in Carytown and online at


.  .  .


A Citizen’s Report on Iran

By D.D. Delaney – The Treehouse Magazine – Magazine of Possibilities


At Barack Obama’s prime-time news conference on Feb. 9, Reuters journalist Caren Bohan asked him what his administration’s strategy will be for engaging Iran.

Here, in part, is Obama’s reply, as it appeared on C-Span:

“I said during the campaign that…(Iran’s) development of a nuclear weapon, or their pursuit of a nuclear weapon,…(creates) the possibility of destabilizing the region and (is) not only contrary to our interests but I think (is) contrary to the interests of international peace.

“What I’ve also said is that we should take an approach with Iran that employs all the resources at the United States’ disposal, and that includes diplomacy.”

Appointing diplomat George Mitchell as special Mid-East envoy and granting his first interview as President to Arab television “indicates,” Obama said, “the degree to which we want to do things differently in the region.”

But how different is that from U.S. policy for the past three decades?

Richmond journalist and author Phil Wilayto would say, I believe, that the difference is negligible.

Wilayto, editor of the community-organizing newspaper the Richmond Defender—which in April will morph into the Virginia Defender—has just published an impressive book of scholarly journalism which seeks to set the record straight on U.S.-Iran relations.

In Defense of Iran: Notes from a U.S. Peace Delegation’s Journey Through the Islamic Republic, is part politics, part history, and part travelogue describing the eleven-day tour of Iran Wilayto took with four other Virginia activists in July, 2007.

On Feb. 3 Wilayto, with his wife Ana Edwards, appeared at the Off-Base Coffee House in Norfolk to promote his book and meet with the like-minded. He read a couple sections from the book and fielded questions from the dozen or so people who’d turned out to hear him at the third
monthly meeting of Off-Base’s “Political Pages,” where activist literature is discussed.

Off-Base co-proprietor Tom Palumbo hosted the evening. Palumbo was among the five who went to Iran to see for themselves what conditions were like there and to reach out in a peaceful gesture toward the Iranian people.

The trip, incidentally, was hassle-free. There are few travel restrictions upon Americans who visit Iran.

But a literary presentation in a pleasant social setting pales by comparison to the contents of this book, the purpose of which, Wilayto reminds us again and again, is to prevent a war with Iran.

If he is right in his well-documented assessments of Iranian culture and U.S. policy—which he very well may be—Barack Obama should read this book.

He should have read it, in fact, before his prime-time press conference.

For example, on the nuclear bomb issue, Wilayto makes the accurate point that Iran, as a signer of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, is guaranteed the right to acquire nuclear power plants, which need enriched uranium to operate.

The fact that Iran is enriching uranium, which it has never denied, is its right under an international treaty.

But enriched uranium is also needed to build a nuclear bomb. Because of that, the Bush administration charged Iran with working to develop nuclear weapons and sent a strong signal that a military attack would be appropriate to prevent that. Obama chose to continue that charge, complete with the veiled threat of war, at his press conference.

But Wilayto presents arresting evidence that the nuclear-bomb charge against Iran is disingenuously contrived.

First, he says, “there is a huge difference between uranium enriched to produce nuclear power and uranium enriched to produce nuclear weapons. The difference is the degree of purity. Uranium intended to produce nuclear power has to be enriched to a degree of less than 5 per cent. For nuclear weapons the threshold is 90 per cent.

“This is a big difference. To enrich uranium you need thousands of machines called centrifuges. To go from less than 5 per cent to a 90 per cent degree of purity, you’d need many more centrifuges, and you’d have to set them up—configure them—differently.

“And if you tried to do that, the International Atomic Energy Agency would find out.”

In 2003 the IAEA concluded that there was no evidence suggesting Iran was trying to build a nuclear bomb. In 2007 a comprehensive U.S. National Intelligence Estimate announced the same conclusion.

Wilayto cites the Federation of American Scientists as the source for his technical information. (Those interested may find more on the FAS website.) His argument seems untainted, unlike the Bush administration policy which Obama has apparently adopted.

In similar fashion Wilayto lays out well-documented arguments to refute or, at least, deflect all the common talking points politicians and pundits routinely offer for why Iran is a rogue state with dangerous ambitions, which must be curbed, to dominate the Mid-East.

Among these talking points: that the Iranian government is run by radical Islamists who deny the Holocaust and seek to destroy Israel, that Iran supports terrorists in Lebanon and Gaza and supplies Iraqi insurgents with weapons, that Iranian women are oppressed and gays executed, that Iranians hate Americans.

In contrast, through encounters and interviews with Iranians from all walks of life, from government officials to goatherds, Wilayto brings forth an impression of a lively, graciously hospitable society whose differences with western culture, though often significant, have been vastly over-simplified, badly misunderstood, and riddled with prejudice of every sort.

And, unfortunately, the errors, certainly wanton, may also be deliberate.

In one of Wilayto’s most compelling chapters—”What’s Really Behind the Crisis?”—he makes the case, well-documented as always, that the actual American objective in Iran is to extend its control over Mid-East oil.

Wilayto gives multiple reasons for why the U.S. wants this control, but benefiting the American people is not foremost. A large percentage of the oil burned in the U.S. comes from our own hemisphere or from Africa, while—another surprising statistic—the U.S., which itself still produces ten per cent of the world’s oil, is the third largest oil producer in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The real reason the U.S. wants control of those oil fields, Wilayto suggests, is to profit from the flow of energy to the economies of Japan, Europe, and much of Asia, including China, Taiwan, and the Philippines, because those countries, unlike the U.S., depend to a great extent on Mid-East oil.

Whether this high-stakes game of chess is worthy of the America where you and I thought we grew up is, I suppose, a matter of personal opinion. But clearly, if Wilayto’s keen-eyed, well-informed conclusions are correct, activists have a lifetime of work ahead of them to reset the moral compass of the American government.

In Defense of Iran is a solid, disturbing, but readable and eminently informative work. It’s available from Defenders Publications Inc., PO Box 23202, Richmond, VA, 23223. Call 804-644-5834, or go to on the web.