A Faith in Dialogue

Joe Volk, executive secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobbying group in Washington, recently participated in a delegation of American Christian leaders that was received by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since his return, he has been meeting with congressional foreign policy staffers to tell them about what his group heard in Iran and urge expanded U.S.-Iran dialogue. He discussed his trip with Laura Rozen.


Laura Rozen: Tell me about your group and the nature of the delegation with which you traveled to Iran.

Joe Volk: The U.S. religious leaders delegation was composed of 13 members and took some staff and a PBS film crew for the "Now" program. We went February 17 … and arrived in Tehran very early Monday, 1:30 a.m. We literally began our visits and meetings with the Iranians right then in the airport which continued through [the week]. Our last meeting was a two-and-a-half hour conversation with President Ahmadinejad on February 24. That was at his offices in Tehran.

The other thing about this, there have been a lot of exchanges, groups, scholars, doing things quietly, back-and-forth exchanges -- for instance, with librarians, with the Library of Congress. But we were told by Iranian officials in the Foreign Ministry that this was the first American delegation on official visas, not tourists visas, to visit a sitting president in Iran in 28 years, basically since the Revolution. … They felt this was important from their point of view -- an important visit by American Christians -- and they wanted to signal, I believe, through this hosting of the group, that they wanted an opening to direct talks.

In terms of the delegation, it was convened and administered by the Mennonite Central Committee, a voluntary arm of the Mennonite Church, and by the American Friends Service Committee, which is a Quaker organization that does humanitarian relief and aid abroad and social work in the U.S.

Talk about your delegation's meeting with Ahmadinejad.

First thing I should say, when you say "President," there is a tendency to think his role in Iran is similar to the role our president has. But that wouldn't be true. In Iran the president is not the head of state, the president is head of the government … Nevertheless, the American perception is that this is the guy who is calling the shots and making the decisions. He has certainly frightened the American people and members of Congress because of the public remarks that he makes. You can go to websites and see pictures of him standing at podium, with "A World Without Zionism," written on it, a really frightening thing, not only for Israelis and many Jews but for anyone in the West who has learned the lessons of the Holocaust … When we went to meet with him, we certainly had all of those images in our heads …

The setting was a room big enough to accommodate our group of 13, plus his group of 13, plus our PBS crew and his camera crew. We were able to have a two-and-a-half hour conversation that had its pleasant moments, it had its unpleasant moments, it had a lot of tensions at some points. It was an occasion where we could literally talk with him about all of the hot-button issues, and we did.

Their nuclear program would be one of those hot-button issues, and all of the conflict that has come out about it. I had the occasion to ask him about this … We made a lot of eye contact, I think he has an understanding of English, and knew what we were saying, but we were talking through a translator. The first thing he said was, weapons of mass destruction are contrary to Islamic principles. And one example he gave was that during the eight year Iraq-Iran war, he said Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran, he claimed 100,000 Iranians killed by Iraqi chemical weapons, and there certainly was the temptation to respond in kind, but because WMD are against Islamic principles and there are fatwas against it, Iran did not respond in kind.

We indicated to him, that while we respect and accept sincerity of those in Iran who hold Islamic principles against weapons of mass destruction, there certainly are Christians in the United States who would have opposition to nuclear weapons, but our government has them. So it's not reassuring. And he responded, well of course that's true, your government and the world would need to have the benefit of inspections. And both he and former [Iranian] president [Mohammad] Khatami [with whom they also met] and the Iranian deputy foreign minister [Saeed Jalili], they all had a similar story on this, they are willing to accept full-scope safeguards with additional protocols for intrusive inspections. Former President Khatami said he believed his government would also accept a fuel cycle provided to Iran by an international consortium for running their civilian energy. Another thing they said, and this is interesting in light of [former U.S. ambassador to the UN John] Bolton's recent remarks, is that Iran has stayed in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. 'We didn't leave it. And our intention is to stay in.'

Iran has recently arrested Iranian American scholars; it has a long history of jailing and torturing dissidents. Ahmadinejad has denied the Holocaust, as you mentioned. Do you worry that talking to him legitimates what some would say is an evil regime?

How to talk with a monster like Ahmadinejad? It seems to me that, number one, he is not the only representative of the government and the government is clearly ready to talk. There are struggles in that government. Our government should be giving incentives to that part of the government that wants to talk about this.

Secondly on the monster issue. It's a huge mistake to see this guy or people he represents as monsters. A really big problem is the 28-year gap of contact. You know about the sociological principle of convergence? If you put people on different points of view in proximity to each other and keep them in proximity, over a period of time, their views will start to converge. Twenty-eight years of not talking to Iran – our views have diverged. … Face-to-face talks can make a difference.

Ahmadinejad said Iran is prepared to engage in direct talks with us any time any place on any topic, and then he put a condition on it: if the U.S. will show good will. We never got "good will" defined by him. I think some in our group [thought] a good will gesture might involve sending spare parts of civilian airplanes. But I certainly came to the conclusion that good will is probably if the U.S. will signal that it is backing off the regime change goal.

You mentioned you brought up Iran's support for Hezbollah, alleged support for militants in Iraq targeting U.S. forces, etc.

When you are there and doing these talks, this becomes a message in high relief. The Iranians have a narrative that explains the history of their relationship with the West and the U.S. And that narrative starts in 1953 with the CIA overthrow of Mossadegh … installing the shah, a dictator, and standing shoulder to shoulder with the shah as he oppressed the religious community … and they are angry about this …

The U.S. has a different narrative that explains same history. Here were communists trying to take over Iran and nationalize the oil industry and we had to stop them and prevent this from happening. … Then these revolutionaries came to power and took our diplomats hostage and were calling us the Great Satan and said they would depose us. And we know that Iran has since then used groups like Hamas and Hezbollah as levers. So here are really frightening religious extremists who have taken over a state to threaten national and international interests of the U.S., and my goodness, these two narratives couldn't be more different.

So when a group like our group says, let's see if religious leaders on both sides of this conflict might be able to build some bridges that could encourage dialogue toward resolution of this conflict rather than create yet a bigger gap and move towards war, you find yourselves standing in a gap between two narratives. You wonder how will we ever bridge this gap, how to create a narrative going forward, where the U.S. and Iran might actually build cooperative and friendly relationships.

And here is a point where most people think, it's not possible. And my feeling is that our group came back saying: This is a really, really big problem, and there's no certainty that it can be resolved, but all the conditions for resolving this peacefully really are present. And it could happen if there is political will.