In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to exiled Iranian poet and journalist Sepideh Jodeyri.
Iran’s relations with the United States seem to have come to a nadir under the current administration. One of the first decisions President Donald Trump took after entering the White House was to introduce a widely-contested “Muslim ban,” preventing the entry of the citizens of Iran and several other Muslim-majority countries into the United States. He also withdrew the US from the UN-backed Iran nuclear deal and reimposed hard-hitting economic sanctions against Tehran.
The proponents of the sanctions say they will result in a change in the Iranian government’s behavior and compel Tehran to restrain its regional influence and militarism. Opponents say the measures are controversial because of their detrimental impact on the lives of ordinary citizens.
In October 2018, the International Court of Justice ordered the United States to ease sanctions it imposed on Iran after abrogating the July 2015 nuclear agreement following a complaint lodged by Iran that Washington had violated the 1955 Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations and Consular Rights. The judges specifically ruled that the United States had to remove “any impediments” to the export of humanitarian goods including food, medicine and aviation safety equipment. The US responded that it would ignore the ruling and immediately withdrew from the treaty.
On January 22, a group of distinguished American poets and literary figures gathered at the Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC, to read their work and speak out against the US government’s campaign of economic sanctions on Iran and the deteriorating relations between the two countries. The event, No One Wants to Believe the Garden is Dying: American Poets against US Sanctions on Iran, was organized by Sepideh Jodeyri, an Iranian poet, literary critic and journalist living in exile in the United States, and featured guests like Charles Bernstein, Pierre Joris and Nicole Peyrafitte.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Sepideh Jodeyri about the effects of US sanctions, the role art can play in political protest and the future of the relationship between America and Iran.
The text has been edited for clarity.
Kourosh Ziabari: What was the motivation for organizing the poetry event?
Sepideh Jodeyri: You’ve certainly heard of the way the famous American poet Allen Ginsberg or the noted music icon Roger Waters protested war, inhumanity and injustice in the world. It was so inspiring to me, and my motivation was to find a way that might be effective in reducing the suffering that the people of Iran have been subject to since President Trump imposed these new economic sanctions against my homeland. If not effective, at least it was a way to protest. As an Iranian poet who lives in the United States, I couldn’t keep silent while witnessing this [injustice].
I believe that, in the first place, the Islamic Republic’s corrupt rulers are responsible for Iran’s economic crisis, but we cannot deny that reimposing sanctions has made the situation worse. So I absolutely agree with the Iranian political prisoners like pro-reform activists Dr. Farhad Meysami and Narges Mohammadi when they speak out from prison against the unjust sanctions. You know that I dedicated the event to Farhad Meysami because of an open letter he wrote from Tehran’s Evin prison, in which he denounced both the Islamic Republic and the US government’s policies.
But the problem is that hardliners in Iran, as well as pro-war and pro-sanctions Iranian activists abroad, have dominated all the tribunes so that nobody can hear the independent voices — the other voices. I thought it might be helpful to hold such an event to let American people know what is happening to the Iranian people as a result of the US sanctions. I think all of us who live in the US are responsible for the people who would die of hunger or lack of medication in Iran if we keep silent and don’t raise our voice in protest.
You remember that more than 500,000 children died in Iraq as a result of US sanctions. I don’t want it to happen to Iranian children as well. Never. But it is going to happen, according to the reports we are receiving from the ordinary people who live in Iran.
Fortunately, the event was well received by the American audience. Busboys and Poets, a famous location in Washington, DC, was full that night, with some people even standing at the door.
Ziabari: What sort of feedback did you receive?
Jodeyri: Both the Americans and Iranians in the audience later on informed me that they enjoyed it so much. The poets were amazing! They were very well aware of what was happening inside Iran. All of them spoke against the sanctions before they started to recite their poetry. For example, the winner of the Bollingen Prize, Charles Bernstein, who came from New York to take part in the event, made a long and great speech. He said, “I have come here to protest the Trump sanctions against Iran; sanctions that dangerously escalate the conflict with Iran while hurting ordinary Iranians who are themselves the chief victims of Iran’s tyrannical theocracy. This a view that is hardly controversial as it is the shared by the EU and the Obama administration and over 60% of Americans.”
He criticized both the US and Iranian government, and, in another part of his speech, he even criticized the Israeli government. He believes that the three governments are responsible for this disaster in Iran. And I agree with him.
I write so much, mostly poetry and sometimes essays. I hope my pen reflects my people’s suffering. I am trying to do so. And that is all I can do as a poet and essayist who has been in exile for eight years.
We have also received more than 300 positive messages from the people inside Iran in the first two days after the event was held. They were mostly ordinary people who were sending their thanks via Instagram, Facebook and Telegram. They shared the news of the event on their social media and Telegram groups. So we received more messages than we expected. Even now, a couple of months after the event, I am still receiving positive messages. I wish I could take a more effective action to support the people of my homeland.
Ziabari: Charles Bernstein, Pierre Joris, Nicole Peyrafitte, Sarah Browning and Leslie Bumstead all recited their poetry. Were there other poets as well? Why did you choose them to present their work?
Jodeyri: Yes, there were a few more poets as well: Rod Smith, Bevil Townsend and K. Lorraine Graham from Washington, DC, who attended the event and recited their poems, and Mandana Zandian, an Iranian poet from Los Angeles, Alireza Behnam, Somayyeh Toosi, Amir Ghazipour and Sara Afzali from Iran who shared their work by sending audio files and their English translations. I also recited my poetry.
I knew their views on the sanctions as we had discussed them together several times before I decided to hold such an event. So, considering their knowledge of the situation, I thought that they were the best options to make it happen: to hold a poetry night with American and Iranian poets against the US sanctions on Iran.
Ziabari: What were the most notable commonalities in the works of American and Iranian poets ? Was there anything that links their views and approach to Iran-US relations and the anti-Iran sanctions?
Jodeyri: I suppose yes. The commonalities were their anti-war and pro-peace views. And I believe that the sanctions are playing the role of an economic war that drives millions of innocent people into poverty, illness and death. The American poets recited their poems in which they criticized Trump’s policies and also the US and Israel governments’ warlike [stance]. The Iranian poets’ works that were shared during the event were mostly against war and injustice.
Ziabari: Do you think poetry, and art in general, can bridge the gaps between Iranians and Americans, and perhaps bring the two nations closer together at a time when their politicians are fiercely clashing?
Jodeyri: That was one of my goals for holding such an event — to build that bridge. I am thinking of holding more events to introduce Iranian experimental and avant-garde poetry to American poets and also writing some literary essays in Persian on American experimental and avant-garde poetry in order to introduce it to the Iranian [public].
I am sure that poetry and art can bridge the gaps, as they have done before on different occasions and milestones in history, for example during the Vietnam War. We know that many poets and artists such as Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and others took action and participated in demonstrations against that war. They recited poetry and sang songs during similar events. And I think it was effective in making people aware of the [impacts] of the war.
Ziabari: A common denominator in the poems recited by the American and Iranian poets at your event and their statements was opposition to the sanctions President Trump placed on Iran. How will the sanctions undermine the civil rights movement in Iran and affect the ordinary citizens? Is it possible to counter the negative effects of the measures?
Jodeyri: That’s a good question. As I mentioned, this had been exactly my main motivation for organizing such an event. According to the United Nations special rapporteur, Idriss Jazairy, sanctions must be just and must not lead to the suffering of innocent people. International sanctions must have a lawful purpose, must be proportional and must not harm the human rights of ordinary citizens. None of these criteria are met in this case. Reuters has reported that global traders have halted food supply deals with Iran because the new sanctions have paralyzed banking systems required to secure payments. Food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies are exempt from sanctions, but the US measures targeting everything from oil sales to shipping and financial activities have barred many foreign banks from all Iranian business, including humanitarian deals.
So that’s how the sanctions affect the ordinary citizens in Iran. In terms of the civil rights movement, we have to consider that activism is mostly not permitted, or at least it is not considered to be a job in Iran. The civil rights activists are voluntarily taking part in such actions. When even the middle-class has to work three shifts a day under the economic crisis, how can people have the opportunity and time for voluntary activities? Under such conditions they would logically focus on the jobs that earn them income, not the voluntary ones.
I think to counter the sanctions, in the first place, the Iranian government has to [come up with] a strong economic plan. Unfortunately, most of the experts and politicians who could share their views and experiences to help avoid such a crisis are in prison, in exile or considered outsiders. For example, one of the leaders of the Iranian pro-democracy Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was the prime minister of Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, managed the economy in such a way that wartime Iran didn’t face an economic crisis. But we know that he and the two other Green Movement leaders have been under house arrest for eight years now.
So I think we have to make the people of the world, especially the US, aware of the effects of these sanctions on the people of Iran. Hopefully, if protests take place, the US government would be convinced to lift the sanctions — at least the most harmful ones.
Ziabari: During President Obama’s tenure, remarkable steps were taken toward a détente between Iran and the United States. President Trump’s harsh stance seems to have undone all of what was achieved under Barack Obama. Is it possible for Iran and the United States to resume working on easing these tensions?
Jodeyri: I absolutely agree with you about President Obama’s positive steps in this regard. Harsh stances always empower the hardliners. In this case, as we see, it has empowered hardliners in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. I think it affects the entire Middle East. It has been a struggling region for a long time, so [antagonism] against any country in the Middle East can affect the whole region. As long as neoconservative and conservative politicians who are mostly pro-war rule the US, and even some parts of Europe, there is less hope for a change in the situation. Hopefully, if a pro-peace politician, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, wins the next presidential election, we would witness a big change.
Ziabari: Are you in touch with fellow poets, journalists and writers in Iran? What do they say about the future of their country? Are they optimistic that Iran’s relationship with the outside world can improve and that isolation will end?
Jodeyri: Yes, I have been in touch with my fellow poets in Iran during the eight years of my exile. And I am in touch with many from my Iranian audience via social media. Most of them are ordinary people. Unfortunately, they are not optimistic at all. When you are under economic pressure and when your basic rights are violated by the government, you cannot be optimistic. You might have heard about the suppression of the workers’ protests in the southern Iran. They are protesting because they haven’t been paid for months. I mean, they are protesting for their basic rights, and they are suppressed. How can we expect them to be optimistic?
I think isolating Iran would definitely empower the hardliners and would definitely increase corruption. That’s what we have always seen in the countries in similar situations. I am a poet, not a politician. So, I don’t know what the best way is to push the Iranian government to improve its relations with the outside world and with its people, but I am sure that these sanctions are the worst way to do so.
Ziabari: Is the Iranian community in the United States outspoken enough to make sure the American leadership is aware of the Iranian people’s resentment toward the sanctions and the Muslim ban?
Jodeyri: Unfortunately not. There are many Iranian human rights activists and organizations in the US that are expected to support human rights in Iran. But as they are all getting their budget from the US, Saudi Arabia and Israeli governments, they just follow those governments’ guidelines, which are not necessarily beneficial for the people of Iran. So, what we see these days is that these activists are even supporting the sanctions and the Muslim ban. That might seem crazy, but it happened. And it makes all of us who are concerned about the future of Iran very hopeless.
Another tragic point is that even those of the US mainstream media who are considered to be critics of Trump’s policies are rarely giving voice to Iranians whose views are against the sanctions, war and the Muslim ban. I think they expect Iranian activists who live in the US to just criticize the Islamic Republic government and not the US government. So we rarely see articles against these sanctions being published in the US mainstream media. It is crazy that the exiled activists such as me who don’t have a [platform] in their country — because of being considered outsiders and enemies by their countries’ governments — are censored by the US government as well for opposing the sanctions and war.
Ziabari: As a poet and translator living in exile, what do you think you can do for your fellow citizens in Iran? How do you relate to their difficulties?
Jodeyri: I write so much, mostly poetry and sometimes essays. I hope my pen reflects my people’s suffering. I am trying to do so. And that is all I can do as a poet and essayist who has been in exile for eight years. I always encourage my audience to just listen to the opposition inside the country, not even to me, because we cannot feel and be aware of exactly what is happening in Iran. I think Farhad Meysami can. Narges Mohammadi can. Bahareh Hedayat can. Mir Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard and Mehdi Karoubi can. Abolfazl Ghadiani, Jila Baniyaghoub and Bahman Ahmadi Amoui can. Esmail Bakhshi, Sepideh Gholian, Reza Shahabi and all of those who are fighting for the human rights and justice from inside Iran can.
They are true human rights activists who are paying the cost of their activism. When we are out of Iran, it is better to focus our activism on protesting the pressure the governments of the countries where we currently live put on our people in Iran in addition to supporting their activism against corruption inside Iran. This is my opinion.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.