US Religious Leaders Urge Bush to Talk to Iran

A delegation of U.S. religious leaders called Monday for Washington to negotiate with Tehran, following the delegation’s landmark two-and-a-half-hour meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The 13-person religious delegation was the first to meet with an Iranian president since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

”It was a very cordial meeting,” said Reverend Shanta Premawardhana of the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical coalition that includes more than 100,000 local congregations and 45 million people in the United States.

”It was late in the evening. It started at 8:00 PM and lasted until about 10:30,” he told OneWorld. ”[Ahmadinejad] seemed a little tired. He had been traveling a lot, but we were grateful that he gave us a full two and a half hours.”

Premawardhana said the Iranian president told the group of United Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist, Catholic, Evangelical, Quaker, and Mennonite leaders that Iran has no intention to acquire or use nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad also said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be solved through political – not military – means.

Upon their return to the United States, the religious leaders called for direct face-to-face talks between the U.S. and Iranian governments and more people-to-people exchanges, including among religious leaders and members of the Iranian Parliament and U.S. Congress.

”The Iranian government has already built a bridge toward the American people by inviting our delegation to come to Iran,” the religious leaders said in a statement. ”We ask the U.S. government to welcome a similar delegation of Iranian religious leaders to the United States.”

Joe Volk of the Quaker Friends Committee on National Legislation told OneWorld he found Ahmadinejad to be ”compelling” in the argument that Iran’s nuclear program was being developed for energy production rather than weaponry.

”He said ‘Look at it practically,”’ Volk quoted the Iranian president. ”’Nuclear weapons didn’t save the apartheid regime in South Africa, didn’t save the Soviet Union, and why would it save us? Secondly, if we had nuclear weapons we’d be in a deterrence situation. It’s not something we could use and if we did use them there’d be overwhelming force in the other direction. We really are not crazy. ”’

On Sunday, while the religious delegation was on a plane back to the United States, Ahmadinejad gave a speech about his country’s nuclear program.

"Enemies have no concern about enrichment in Iran,” Ahmadinejad said, according to his country’s state news agency. ”They are worried that they might yield to determination of the Islamic Revolution and lose their dignity through Iran’s access to nuclear technology."

He added, "By the grace of God, enemies will be obliged to succumb to the Iranian nation’s will. Enemies have pinned hope on certain individuals inside the country who chant for disdain and surrender.”

Reflecting on the speech, Joe Volk of the Quaker Friends Committee on National Legislation said, ”If you listen to the public rhetoric of the government of Iran and if you listen to the public rhetoric of the government of the United States you would say the gap between these two governments is so great that it simply cannot be overcome. But when you look at the national interests that the U.S. has stated and the national interests that Iran has stated, they’re much closer together than the rhetoric would indicate. The differences are relatively small.”

Volk cited a proposal the Iranian government allegedly made to Washington through a Swiss ambassador in 2003. The proposal, according to former U.S. Congressional aid Trita Parsi, contained promises to disarm the Lebanese political and paramilitary organization Hezbollah and end support to other groups the Bush administration has put on its terrorist watch list including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Iranian proposal also supposedly agreed to recognize a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and promote peace in Iraq.

The Bush administration did not respond to the proposal.