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Mike Gravel on movies, sanctions, and what we can learn from Iran

Last week, the Iranian government organized a conference on "Hollywoodism" in Tehran, at which an international group of activists, religious figures, filmmakers, and politicians discussed the ideology of Hollywood films. In particular, many of the participants argued that films like Argo promote an anti-Iranian, anti-Islamic agenda.

One of the more suprising participants in the event was Mike Gravel, the former two-term Alaska senator, best known for reading the Pentagon Papers into the public record, who ran in the Democratic and Libertarian presidential primaries in 2008. During the campaign, Gravel attracted attention for his anti-establishment views as well as his unconventional advertising. Since leaving electoral politics, he has spoken in support of WikiLeaks and called for a new investigation of the 9/11 attacks.

According to the New York Times, Gravel argued at the conference that it was  "'fundamental' to discuss the American movie industry’s ways of portraying Iran in order to prevent 'an insane war.'"

I spoke with the 83-year-old Gravel Thursday on the phone from his home in California about his impressions from the trip.

Foreign Policy: So who invited you, how did this come about?

Mike Gravel: I've been angling to go to Tehran for some time. I'd been there 40 years ago when I was in the Senate, for a few days, and so I was hoping I'd get a speaking gig where they could pay my way. I can't afford myself to take these kind of trips if they're not funded. So what happened, unbeknownst to me, this was the third Hollywoodism conference.

A fellow by the name of Kevin Barrett [the former University of Wisconsin professor and 9/11 truth activist] who I know, I had spoken on his television show, or radio show, frequently. He suggested to them that they invite me and it took off from there. I've been interviewed on average about once a week on PressTV and so my views are very well known over there and obviously quite safe for an invitation because I wasn't going to rock any boat.

FP: So as I understood it, many people at the conference were arguing that Hollywood movies like Argo are motivated by some kind of pro-Israel, anti-Iranian agenda. What did you think about that?

MG: There was various elements of extremes. I am very much a movie buff, and there's good stuff that comes out of Hollywood and there's bad stuff that comes out of Hollywood. You can take your pick. They take a different viewpoint. [The Iranians] operate from a religious viewpoint and they feel that some of the extremes of Hollywood has deteriorated human culture worldwide and so that's what they're trying to have this conference. They want to try and see if they can't develop an alternative to Hollywoodism and I don't think they can, I think that they will have an influence in their area of movies. Part of the deal was they gave us two, or I'd say 20, maybe more, movies to watch that were part of the conference so I'll be doing that for part of the time here to try to get a feel for how realistic they are.

FP: What were your general impressions of Iran?

MG: I can't tell you how warm the people were. How giving, considerate. And, the thing that was very surprising to me. If you follow American media, you think they're on the ropes. I gotta tell you, there's no question the sanctions are a discomfiture, but in the long run it is the best thing that's ever happened to Iran. It's made them totally independent, and forcing them to internalize their economic activity, to build machines. We rode for about 10 miles right through the heart of Iran where they're building an elevated highway. Boy, I'll tell you, that was an impressive work area. So the city is just like a normal thriving city. It has prosperity. You could tell by the traffic jams. The architecture's extremely attractive and imposing, and so what's happened to the country is it's being forced into independence. But that's exactly what a developing country does. You force domestic wares to be produced and then you turn around and you can export your product very competitively because your money is depressed, and so that's what's going on in Iran. And I don't think the United States has any inkling that what it's doing is counterproductive to arriving at a solution in that part of the world.

FP: Do you think war between the U.S. and Iran is inevitable?

MG: First off, I think it'll happen by accident. I equate what's going on today as to what was going on in February and March of 1914. Everybody's psyched up to the hilt, armed to the hilt. All you need is an accident, all you need is an accident to just blow the whole thing wide open. And that's my fear. When you see a poll, and the polls I've seen vary, but from 40 to 55 percent of the Americans would tolerate an invasion of Iran. Now, I don't think that toleration would last beyond 30 days, but when you see a situation like that and politicians read the tea leaves, they think they can do what they want in this regard.

Let me back up. The sanctions are illegal. There's nothing that I see that Iran ahs done that warrants the sanctions against them. If you want to sanction somebody, do it to Saudi Arabia who has funded the madrasas with Wahhabism, hatred of the gentiles. That's not the approach of the Shia. The Shia is the more benign wing of the Islamic world, and the Ayatollah Khamenei, the imam, is the, literally the pope of all the Shiitex in the world.

FP: The Obama administration publicly says it's trying to avoid war. Do you believe that?

MG: No, I think there's a great insincerity on part of the Obama administration unfortunately. Probably the best approach to this, the Imam has stated very clearly they are not going to pursue the acquisition of the bomb because the Koran dictates that they cannot do that. Now at face value, when you recognize that this is the spiritual leader of the country and the spiritual leader of the world of Shiites and he's making a statement that the Koran does not tolerate an atomic bomb. Now, if you took that at face value, then a lot of things become a little ridiculous, like when the President says ‘well we've got a red line here you can't cross.' They're not going to cross it, they've already said this repeatedly. And there's no intelligence estimates that indicate they're pursuing a bomb. None at all.

Of course, there's a lot of conflict with the IAEA and I don't know if you remember the memo, from the um, Amamo, the Japanese guy, the head of other IAEA to the ambassador in Austria, telling the ambassador that, oh, he's very grateful for the United States in getting the job and that he guarantees that American interests will be protected. Now, I don't particularly view that as an independent kind of a situation, not even fair, but by the same token, Iran has not violated anything of the IAEA. It has had investigators all over the place, and they're going to continue to do that.

FP: So who else did you have a chance to meet with? Did you talk to any officials?

MG: Oh yes, some, but I didn't' recognize who they were. I didn't meet Ahmadinejad. They were trying to put something together, and it sort of fell through. Obviously I didn't meet the Imam. But met other officials who were party to the conference because the whole conference is funded by the government, and so they were at various levels, cultural levels, and maybe not so cultural were monitoring the conference and I was interviewed extensively by the various networks. And I gave the same opinions that I have right now giving to you.

FP: Were you able to talk to any opponents of the regime?

MG: Nope. I know Trita Parsi here in the States but no, I didn't get any feel for any opposition. You know, we were staying at the hotel and then we would just go out to forays. My wife was with me and so she likes to see things. I would just rest in the hotel. You know, I'm 83 at this point, I don't need a whole lot of gallivanting around.

But, we were talking about meeting people from about 35 people from all over the world, motion picture people, writers, activists, and some were off the charts.

FP: What do you mean "off the charts"?

MG: Oh, their attitude toward Zionism. But that wasn't so much. They don't talk about the Jewish lobby, they talk about the Zionist lobby, in their terminology, which is interesting. I doubt there's any change that they'll be able to bring forth. But what they will bring forth is an independent, powerful nation able to defend itself, and will certainly be a leader of the non-aligned, and that's not always in the United States' best interests. And I resent a lot of our imperial attitude that we have to, we're the self-appointed policemen of the world. We police when it's our interests and if not, we don't police very well.

FP: Did it seem like the officials you met with were open to opposing views? Were they tolerant of dissent?

MG: Oh yeah. Yeah. They're very open. Because they know, from their public pinion, that they're operating in the blind. And, oh, there's one other thing I came away with that fascinates me. I, the last 25 or 30 years, I've focused my attention on structure of government, you know, how human beings in society attempt to govern themselves. I look for models. Like Switzerland for direct democracy. They have an interesting model. They have married a theocracy and a political system, and it appears to work. Now, all I can say is that's nothing to cause fear. What we should do is encourage models like this to see how they operate and see what contributions they can make to human governments.

FP: So you think we can learn from the Iranian political model?

MG: Oh yes I think we can. Not so much for ourselves. We say we've got separation of church and state. Well I've gotta tell you Joshua, when you pay your taxes, you are supporting all the churches in the United States. That's the nature of the beast. Since Islam is such a devotional kind of religion -- I mean I was in a couple of meetings where I had to sit there and meditate while they were praying -- this has something to tell us. They have a successful country, and make no mistake about it, they are a very successful country and are suffering as a result of our injustice.

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Yemen lurches away from national dialogue with renewed violence

It was a year ago yesterday that Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi was formally made president of Yemen in a national referendum. He succeeded the three-decade rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who finally yielded to international pressure to step down amid a popular uprising, and Hadi's accession was meant to usher in a two-year transition to a more representative government. Yemeni politicians and U.N. officials have spent much of the past year organizing a National Dialogue, including representatives of many of the country's overlapping and competing factions, divided along tribal, political, and religious lines, to discuss constitutional reforms and, possibly, a more decentralized government.

But yesterday, three representatives from the country's restive south withdrew from the National Dialogue committee in protest of continued suppression of the "Hirak," or Southern Movement, which has called for stronger representation for Yemen's south or secession. Protesters in Aden -- which until 1991 was the capital of an independent South Yemeni state -- gathered to protest Hadi's reluctance to address southern grievances. They were met with gunfire from the military, which positioned soldiers on rooftops overlooking the protest (recalling the carnage caused by rooftop snipers just less than two years ago in one of the uprisings catalyzing moments); at least four protesters died (maybe eight now) and 40 more were wounded. On the anniversary of the referendum, Yemen's halfway revolution appears as stalled now as ever before.

The delays to the National Dialogue were expected -- six months before Saleh stepped down, when the transition plan was still a proposal, Chatham House fellow Ginny Hill said,

I see hurdles at every stage. I think it's going to be a contested process, but it's going to be a contested process that Yemen needs to go through. And I think it will be good if it's contested, because in that process -- if it can be contained within a genuinely political space, if it doesn't turn into a violent process -- the scope for forging more legitimate political structures potentially lies in this process.

The transition was always going to be messy, but it is increasingly returning to a state of affairs last seen during the uprising's tensest moments in 2011, a race to find an inclusive agreement before the country unravels.

And it is unraveling. Last week, the U.N. Security Council issued a resolution singling out Saleh and his long-exiled southern rival, Ali Salem al-Beidh, as spoilers in the peace process. Last month, a large weapons shipment, including shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, was intercepted en route to Yemen, possibly from Iran; previous to the captured shipment, rumors of other shipments to insurgents had persisted for months. As news came out of Aden, Gregory Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge, tweeted:

 

In the worst days of the popular uprising, secessionist tribal groups carrying the old South Yemeni flag seized a military base in the southern province of Yafai, prompting retaliatory airstrikes. If southern politicians refuse to participate and the National Dialogue collapses, this could well occur again on a much larger scale. Will Picard, head of the Yemen Peace Project, wrote last night about the potential for a renewal of Yemen's 1994 civil war. "More violence is certain," he concluded. "Little else is."

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