Attending the Second Grand Congress of Iranians Abroad

Dear friends,

As soon as we get five minutes to breathe, we’ll send out a report on the Second Grand Congress of Iranians Abroad, a conference for Iranian ex-pats held here in Tehran, Aug. 2-3.  As with many other countries that have experienced the international “brain drain,” the Iranian government is trying to redevelop ties with highly educated Iranians living abroad and solicit their help in developing the country.  About 1,500 people attended the conference, including a handful of non-Iranians, such as George Galloway, the UK MP who has led four courageous blockade-challenging caravans to Gaza; Paul Ingram, head of BASIC, a London-based think tank and lobbying group that works on nuclear disarmament issues; the U.S. Iran scholar Richard Frye; Ana Edwards and myself from the Defenders and CASMII; and several non-Iranian spouses of Iranians living abroad.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of interviews conducted by the Islamic Republic News Agency with Ana and myself.

The interviews were conducted in English and seem to have been translated into Farsi and then back to English, so there are a few obvious errors (for example, one in every five people in the U.S. are worried about not having enough to eat, not one in 85, and what I was referring to when saying I was glad President Ahmadinejad had noticed something, I was referring to his observing that in the U.S. it is the poor who are forced to join the military and fight and die in wars not in their own interests, not that he is aware that the U.S is imposing sanctions against Iran).  But what’s important is that the news agency reported that both interviews drew the parallel between the struggle for self-determination by the Black community in the U.S. and Iran’s struggle to keep its independence and sovereignty in the face of U.S. hostility.

When we get home we’ll be working even harder to draw these connections, starting with the Oct. 2 march in Washington D.C. for jobs, when we’ll be demanding “Money for Jobs, Not for War & Sanctions Against Iran!”  We hope you’ll plan to join us.

In the struggle for Justice and Peace,

Phil and Ana

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Published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Aug. 10:

Richmond Activists Visit Iran to Promote Peace
by Michael Paul Williams

Richmond, Va. — A Richmond couple best known for their efforts to preserve an African burial ground here recently traveled across the globe to promote peace between the United States and Iran.

Activists Phil Wilayto and Ana Edwards, the moving forces behind the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, flew to Tehran to attend last week’s Second Grand Congress of Iranians Abroad.

The conference, sponsored by the Iranian government, is designed to encourage cooperation between Iranian expatriates and their Iranian counterparts and to counter a brain drain that has affected that nation.  Wilayto said about 1,500 people attended, including about 450 from the United States.

“It’s the work we’ve been doing since 2007,” said Edwards, who returned from Iran on Sunday.  “It’s part of an extension of the anti-war effort . . . and the right of people to self-determination.”

Wilayto, who is still abroad, and Edwards were invited on the trip through their affiliation with the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran.

“Our goal was to meet Iranian-Americans who might be interested in getting involved in the U.S. peace movement to oppose war or sanctions against Iran,” Wilayto wrote in an e-mail.

And Wilayto says such efforts should have urgency for U.S. citizens.

“Just as in the build-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, we’re being sold a bill of goods by our own government.  Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al-Qaeda, no links to 9/11, but we got convinced we had to go to war.  Now we’ve lost more than 4,000 GIs, 1,000 civilian contractors and no one knows how many Iraqis.”

For him, it all sounds familiar.

“Now we’re told that Iran, another oil-rich country, is trying to develop nuclear weapons.  Iran denies it, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency says there’s no evidence of a weapons program, but the charge gets repeated every day like a mantra.”

He helped organize a delegation of peace activists who visited Iran in 2007.  The group spent 11 days touring the nation and learning about it from an ancient and modern perspective.

This time around, Wilayto gave Iranians some U.S. history.

He was invited at a plenary session to give a 10-minute talk.  Using Richmond’s burial ground as an example, he drew a parallel “between the struggle of the black community in the U.S. for self-determination . . . and Iran’s struggle to remain independent and sovereign in the face of U.S. hostility, sanctions and the threat of war.”

Although the conference was government-sponsored, not everyone was onboard.  Wilayto said it was criticized by the hard-line religious establishment in the Majlis, or parliament.

Edwards said the Iranians she spoke with were divided on the issue of the nation’s controversial presidential election, with some absolutely convinced that it was stolen by incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others supporting the outcome.

She said Iranian-Americans at the conference were not of one mind.  But everyone — whether they dislike the existing Iranian government or not, or whether they’re Muslim or not — opposed U.S. military intervention.

Edwards and Wilayto traveled across the globe to prevent their country from repeating a mistake.  The rest of us need to practice self-determination by becoming more engaged on this issue at home.

Ana Edwards is Chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality and a member of the International Steering Committee of the Campaign Against Sanctions & Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII).  Phil Wilayto is Editor of The Virginia Defender (, a member of CASMII’s International Steering Committee, and author of In Defense of Iran: Notes from a U.S. Peace Delegation’s Journey through the Islamic Republic.

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