“DON’T bomb Iran,” - that was the hard-hitting message two St Leonards peace campaigners got when they visited the country on a 10-day peace mission.
Artist Emily Johns and author Milan Rai, of Gensing Road, have just returned from the trip, seeing first-hand how international sanctions were stifling the growth of the local economy in Iran and how the general population viewed the whole crisis.
The pair, who are members of the anti-war group Justice Not Vengeance (JNV), took in the capital Tehran, as well as the cities of Yazd, Shiraz and Isfahan.
Emily and Milan also met surviving victims of the Iran-Iraq war, many badly affected by chemical weapons used in the conflict between the two countries, which lasted from 1980 to 1988.
The peace activists were part of a five-strong delegation under the banner of the Fellowship of Reconciliation USA.
During the trip they took part in a peace demonstration in Isfahan and received a warm welcome from locals. Emily also drew many sketches, capturing faces of ordinary Iranians.
Emily said: “I went to Iran seven years ago to have a look at what the effects of sanctions had been on the people there.
“The core of this month’s trip was meeting ordinary people and have conversations with them on the street. The purpose of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which was set up after the First World War, is to have person-to-person diplomacy and keeping contact between countries where there are no official diplomatic relations.
“In this time of diplomatic hostility between Britain and Iran, it is important for ordinary people to strengthen person-to-person contact between our countries and to interrupt the build-up to a possible war.
“Many people do not want a war against Iran. Everyone we met there wanted very much to see a peaceful resolution to the current situation.
“The sanctions against Iran have impacted massively on people’s lives, especially with inflation reaching a level of 400 per cent within the last couple of months.
“A very large proportion of the population in Iran are university educated and highly skilled and are very frustrated with an economy crushed by sanctions.
“There are engineers, graphic designers and other educated people finding it very hard to get work.”
The value of the British pound has also strengthened massively against the rial, Iran’s currency, making imported goods more expensive.
Milan said: “Walking around in Iran, you do not have the impression that this was an economy in crisis. For most people we saw things were fairly normal on the surface but underneath there is quite a lot of stress.”
The current crisis has its origins from 2002, when the then US President George W Bush declared Iran as part of an ‘axis of evil’, accusing it of trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran, which has built its first atomic power station at Bushehr, in the south of the country, maintains its nuclear ambitions are peaceful.
In June 2010, the UN voted to impose a fourth round of sanctions on Iran over the issue.
Lack of progress on the nuclear issue increased tension with the UN, US and European Union (EU) throughout 2011, and the EU announced a ban on Iranian oil imports that came into force last July.
Milan said: “The international community is worried about Iran’s growing capacity to manufacture nuclear fuel for its reactors. Iran is saying it needs to sell its gas and oil to the outside world in order to earn hard currency.
“Energy demand in Iran is growing massively as the country has a young population.
“The US has told countries that buy oil from Iran to stop otherwise it will take economic action against them. Some countries, such as India, are dependent on Iranian oil, but they are being told to buy the minimum amount as possible.
“The US is creating a lot of problems for the Iranian economy, forcing people to stop financial transactions with the country’s banks, which has adversely affected all forms of trade.”
The peace activist and Emily flew to Tehran from Amsterdam with Dutch airline KLM. Milan said the carrier was stopping all flights to Iran from April, with Germany’s airline Lufthansa following suit from May.
Milan said he believed the US was ‘using economic power to bully’ people into cutting off connections with Iran. He also added that medicines from the US to Iran had dropped by 50 per cent in the last year.
Emily and Milan, as part of their visit, visited the Tehran Peace Museum, meeting with people scarred by the effects of the Iran-Iraq War.
They met a filmmaker, who was just 16 when he fought as a soldier in the conflict.
Staff at the museum, set up by the mayor of Tehran and supported by organisations calling for a ban on chemical weapons, are all veterans of the Iran-Iraq War.
Emily said: “The museum’s director lost both his legs and one other staff member we met had lost some of his eyesight because of chemical weapons. Part of his lungs had been destroyed.
“We also met a 19-year-old girl whose village was gassed during the Iran-Iraq War, with only her father surviving.
“The population of Iran is traumatised as they have experienced a terrible war. No one said that they really felt there would be another war but we did have a couple of people come up to us saying, ‘Do not attack and bomb Iran’.”
Emily plans to exhibit images drawn from her visit to Iran at the Hastings Arts Forum in Marina, St Leonards in July.
n To view a video of Milan speaking about his experiences in Iran, visit www.hastingsobserver.co.uk.