On June 10, Senator Joe Lieberman said on CBS Face the Nation that he had seen incontrovertible evidence that Iran was training and equipping Iraqi extremists to kill American soldiers and that we should prepare for military strikes against these training bases in Iran. He also decried Iran’s nuclear weapons program, insisting that if we hope to stop their nuclear weapons development, “We can’t just talk to them. If they don’t play by the rules, we’ve got to use our force, and to me that would include taking military action.”
Leslie Angeline, a member of the peace group CODEPINK who had just returned from a citizen diplomacy delegation to Iran, was appalled by the Senator’s remarks. The next day, she began a sit-in at his DC office and decided to fast until the Senator agreed to meet with her and other activists. We also alerted our CODEPINK supporters to call Lieberman’s office, and the phones were ringing off the hook. By the afternoon, the Senator had agreed to a meeting on Thursday, June 14.
On Thursday, a group of 60 people—including members of the Iranian community--showed up for the meeting. The group’s anger only deepened when we were told by Lieberman’s staff that the Senator had changed his mind and was no longer willing to meet.
Tensions mounted in the packed office as the group insisted on seeing the Senator and the staff called the police, who gave a warning that everyone would be arrested if they refused to leave.
Leslie Angeline now on the fifth day of her hunger strike, broke down, sobbing uncontrollably. “I MUST talk to the Senator,” she pleaded. “He has to know that the Iranians are beautiful, warm, kind people, that 70 percent of them are under 30, that they love Americans, that they have never attacked another country in 200 years and have no intention of attacking the United States.” Leslie took out stunning photos of Iranian children that she had taken on her trip. “These are the children who would die if we bombed Iran. We’ve already killed so many Iraqis; we just can’t do this to the people of Iran,” she cried.
The Iranian women in the group began hugging Leslie and crying as well. The emotional exchange, being filmed on camera, must have embarrassed the Senator’s staff. They backed down from the threat of arrests and instead agreed to have their chief of staff, legislative director and Middle East aide meet with three of our team while the others waited in the hallway.
Inside, our group argued for over an hour about how to deal with Iran. The staff claimed that classified briefings proved that Iran is “responsible for the murder of Americans in Iraq”. We asked for and received no evidence backing these claims. We said that the Iraqi government, protected by US forces, was pro-Iran so why would Iran want to kill American soldiers? Our group insisted that even if these concerns about Iran were real, if the US attacked Iran, the Iranian government would certainly retaliate against US soldiers in Iraq—and U.S. deaths would soar.
Our team argued that the timing of Lieberman’s statement on national TV was extremely harmful to the ongoing, delicate negotiations that had begun last month in Baghdad and that it left the perception that Lieberman was trying to scuttle the talks. We noted that confrontational rhetoric from such a prominent U.S. official only strengthens the hand of the hardliners in Iran.
The staff pointed out that on Monday Lieberman reaffirmed his support for US-Iranian negotiations. We replied that his bellicose statements were much more prominent and asked that Lieberman speak out more forcefully in favor of negotiations. They agreed to pass this concern to the Senator.
Our visit to Lieberman’s office with both emotional and well-reasoned arguments, combined with a powerful show of community support and calls from his constituents, seemed to have made an impact and the Senator might think twice in the future before publicly promoting a military attack on Iran. Just to be sure, we assured his aides we represented a much larger constituency and we would be back in greater numbers if the Senator repeats the threat of military force instead of actively supporting dialogue. We also repeated our request to meet directly with the Senator, and we have asked local peace groups and individuals in Connecticut to continue to pressure the Senator in his home state.
What we can learn from the war in Iraq is that once a war has started, it acquires a momentum of its own and becomes harder and harder to stop. That’s why it’s so critical to prevent a war with Iran before it starts, and holding elected officials like Senator Lieberman to account is a key element of stopping the next war now.
Medea Benjamin, cofounder of CODEPINK and Global Exchange, is coauthor of Stop the Next War Now. Global Exchange (www.globalexchange.org) organizes citizen diplomacy delegations to Iran and CODEPINK (www.codepinkalert.org) is pressuring elected officials and the presidential candidates to stop supporting a military attack on Iran. To join us contact firstname.lastname@example.org.