Since the assassination in early January of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, tensions have ratcheted consistently upward between the United States and Iran, leading to escalation of Iran’s uranium enrichment and tit-for-tat engagements between Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and the US military. At the same time, the coronavirus has raced across Iran like a bitter wind, likely having killed tens of thousands of citizens, and returning in recent days with savage intensity to a nation already economically crippled and isolated from the world as a result of umbrella sanctions imposed on the population by the Trump administration. In Iran, the pandemic and the possibility of war can’t be separated.
The country’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has called for the United States to ease sanctions, which “make it virtually impossible for Iranians to import needed medicine and medical equipment.” Trump has responded by announcing even more sanctions and threatened to defy (and perhaps by design undermine) the United Nations by triggering a “snapback” of all multilateral economic sanctions against Iran. Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency recently reported that the country had stockpiled more than 1,500 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, nearly five times the amount allowed under the Iran nuclear deal.
To say the least, these developments have put Iranian American actor and activist Farshad Farahat on edge.
Farahat received acclaim in 2012 for his scene-stealing performance as a suspicious Iranian revolutionary guard in the tense finale of the film Argo, which reenacted the famed 1980 “Canadian Caper” rescue mission during the hostage crisis, and which won three Academy Awards, including the Oscar for best picture. Born in Tehran during the 1979 Iranian revolution, Farahat’s family moved to southern California in 1986, at the height of the war between Iran and Iraq. He studied journalism in college and entered a doctoral program in conflict resolution, but he found his voice in acting. His performance in Argo was a revelation. He is “a brilliant, brilliant actor,” said Ben Affleck, who directed the film.
But Farahat also sits on the board of directors of Ploughshares Fund, one of the oldest institutions dedicated to eliminating nuclear weapons, and the other day, he got a call from Delfin Vigil, the Ploughshares communications director. A former San Francisco Chronicle reporter with a North Beach beatnik vibe, Vigil had an idea to run by Farahat. “I’m going to put you on the spot,” Vigil said. He showed Farahat a mock-up of an outdoor ad campaign for bus shelters, bus tails, and billboards intended for San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and other cities. The image for the ad displayed an American flag, painted vertically on a six-floor building, with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles streaking down its stripes toward an old Ronald Reagan quote: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Farahat chuckled. “That looks exactly like a mural in Tehran of US bombs dropping down on Iran,” he said. “That’s been up 30 years in Iran, man.” He pulled up a photo of the Tehran mural and texted it to Vigil. “My honest opinion? I think that will turn off more people than turn on,” he continued. “You want to steer the conversation in a non-threatening direction of inclusiveness, rather than triggering people to say, ‘Oh, those anti-war libtards are just bad-mouthing the United States.’”
“Right on, right on,” Vigil said. His phone pinged as Farahat’s text came in. “Oh, wow,” he said, looking at the image. “That is pretty much the same thing. We’ll have to chalk that up to the collective unconscious.”
Farahat roared with laughter. “That’s the problem!” he said. “We can’t go down that road anymore. It is what I have been looking at all my life on Tehran’s walls. It is the same thing!”
After the killing of Soleimani, there was worry about a war breaking out between the United States and Iran. But Farahat said that, truly, a war has existed from the moment President Trump abandoned the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions. Inflation in Iran soared, with food prices for items such as pasta and canned tuna doubling and tripling, and queues to purchase key staples sometimes requiring waits of up to 10 hours.
“It’s been a slow kill all along,” Farahat says. “But, now, with the epidemic, it has become a full-on humanitarian disaster. If the sanctions continue, Iran will have nothing to lose. So we either lift these sanctions and reengage, or we should prepare for the real possibility of war.”
Back in San Francisco, Vigil had a question for Farahat. “How bold should we be?” he said. “You mentioned that by our actions we’ve already declared war with Iran. I feel like most people, when I talk about this with them, don’t think that we’re at war. They think it’s dissipated and that it’s gone. And they don’t want to be bummed out by so much bad news. How can we tonally communicate urgency about things like nuclear war and war with Iran without ‘oh no, the sky is falling,’—without people freaking out or tuning out?”
Farahat agreed. “Yeah, that’s always an issue. But I think it’s about having options and always looking for new ways to imagine solutions.”
His voice quickened. “My cousin was like, ‘Well, that’s an absurd thing you’re trying to do, trying to get rid of nuclear weapons. That’ll never happen.’ And I’m like, no, no, no, I’m not trying to get rid of nuclear weapons. But we do need a sense that we have alternatives to nuclear weapons. We need a nonviolence infrastructure. Right now we’re going in the opposite direction, with people in this country thinking that global international connectivity and cultural integration are negative things. Where for me those are the exact remedies for weapons of war and nuclear weapons.”
Ben Rhodes, the former deputy national security advisor in the Obama administration, sits with Farahat on the Ploughshares board of directors. Rhodes emphasizes how the “maximum pressure” policies of the Trump administration have led to an inability to see human beings on the other end. “We need to think about who is sanctioned and who is suffering in other parts of the world because of these policies,” Rhodes says. “We need to build that into our approach. When Farshad is at the table, he gives us that unique perspective otherwise painfully absent from most conversations about American foreign policy.”
Farahat frequently mentions Cyrus the Great, the Persian leader who, 2,600 years ago, freed nations enslaved by the Babylonians, returned gods to their shrines, and liberated the Jews from captivity. Xenophon’s Cyropaedia portrayed Cyrus as the embodiment of Zoroastrian conceptions of virtue and order that unified and stabilized the Persian Empire. During the Enlightenment, the Cyropaedia directly influenced the political philosophers of the era, including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson (who owned two copies).
It blows Farahat away that an ancient model for promoting ethnic and cultural diversity and religious tolerance served as a source of inspiration for the founding ideals of the American nation. He believes Cyrus and Jefferson can be the connective tissue for one day bringing together Iran with Israel and with the United States. “Cyrus the Great freed the Jewish people. He is revered as one of the only messiahs in the Jewish religion who is a gentile. Stories about Cyrus can help us imagine the roots of US–Iran unity and humanity, and international unity, as opposed to sectarianism and tribalism. That’s the core of the Cyrus story. Can we bring those stories into a solution, solving a problem in the nuclear deal?”
Farahat’s next project is a collaboration with Game of Thrones executive producer Vince Gerardis based on the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), the epic poem that chronicles legends of ancient kings and queens from China to Rome. It’s a mythical history of Greater Iran, and the fabled Silk Road, from the dawn of civilization to the 7th century Islamic conquest.
A view from the East with lessons for the West.
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