It was a bright, hot July day in Yazd, an ancient, oasis city in central Iran. The five members of our 2007 People’s Peace Delegation were following our tour guide to see one of the city’s famous Wind Towers, which boast a hundreds-years-old form of natural air-conditioning.
I had fallen a bit behind the rest of the group when I noticed a man walking next to me, going in the same direction. He was stocky, bearded, in about his late 20s, and dressed in olive green fatigues. Like virtually every other Iranian we met on our 11-day, 1,750-mile journey through the Islamic Republic, he smiled and said, “‘ello!”
I said hello back. Then he asked the second usual question: “Where are you from?”
“U.S.A.,” I said.
He stopped, broke into a surprised smile, and then hooked the little fingers of our right hands together.
“Friends!” he said, shaking our fingers up and down.
As we caught up with the rest of the delegation, I introduced my new acquaintance.
“He’s a member of the Revolutionary Guards,” our guide informed us.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is the elite, 125,000-strong military branch that the Bush Administration considers a “terrorist” organization. Last September, Congress — including Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton — called on the State Department to formally apply the label. The Bush administration was happy to oblige.
After smiling and shaking hands for a while, we all said goodbye and our group went on to see the Wind Towers.
As we were leaving the tower, we suddenly saw hundreds of Revolutionary Guards, crowded together and listening to a presentation by a young man in civilian clothes. Our guide later explained they were apparently brought together from different cities for a tour of historical sites. One of the more observant members of our group later counted 10 minibuses in the nearby parking lot, each with 30 passenger seats.
So there we were, five strangers from the United States, on our way back to our van, and we were going to have to walk past 300 members of Iran’s highly political Revolutionary Guards. I looked for our new soldier friend, but couldn’t see him anywhere.
“‘ello!” one of the soldiers said to us. “Where are you from?”
Canada, I thought of saying.
“U.S.A!” another delegation member shouted out.
And the Guards all started smiling and waving at us.
“Welcome!” one said.
“Peace!” said another, holding up his fingers in the V sign.
Then there were dozens of them pressing in on us, smiling and saying their few words of English. And remember, they didn’t yet know why we were in their country, a situation I thought might be good to correct.
“Tell them why we’re here,” I urged our guide.
So he started to explain to the soldiers that we had come to bring a message of peace and friendship to the Iranian people and then go back home and try to stop the U.S. government from attacking Iran.
The soldiers listened intently, nodding their heads. Some looked at us and said, “Thank you!”
About then, the civilian who had been lecturing the Guards came up and told one of the soldiers, presumably an officer, to move his charges along — pretty much the same response I’d have expected from someone escorting a group of Green Berets on a tour of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia — especially if they had been talking with a group of Iranians.
So that was our encounter with the military organization that the State Department has now labeled a terrorist organization — the first and only time it has bestowed that designation on a foreign military, a move that could give the administration a legal cover for attacking Iran.
And what did we learn from our brief experience with the Guards?
That, apparently, no one has yet taught them to hate “Americans.”
And that was the same conclusion we drew after our encounters with students, workers, goat herders, businesspeople, clerics, and government officials all throughout our 11-day tour: no one in Iran is being taught to hate Americans.
And that means that no one — yet — is preparing them for war.
Phil Wilayto is the editor of the Richmond Defender newspaper in Richmond, Virginia. He was the organizer of the People’s Peace Delegation to Iran, which toured the Islamic Republic of Iran from July 20-30, 2007. For more information on that journey, see www.vawn.org.