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Week of 3.23.07

Delegate Dispatches

A U.S. religious delegation visited Iran earlier this year to meet spiritual and political leaders in the hope of improving relations between the two countries. Below are excerpts from blogs and other writings kept by some members of the traveling delegation.

Shanta Premawardhana
Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations, National Council of Churches, U.S.

Shanta Premawardhana We were warmly welcomed in Tehran by the Iranian Foreign Ministry. In that initial welcome it was clear to us that the news media had reported on our arrival and a sense of expectation had been created. We learned that some think of Americans as "enemies." Not surprising, with all the rhetoric coming out of Washington! We also learned that one news report had depicted us as "missionaries." This means that for fear of who we might evangelize, we'll be watched, for who we will meet what we will say, and perhaps even what we will write on our blogs ...

"When they realized that we were Americans, they became very agitated and angry and shouted at us to go home."
[W]e visited Ayatollah Imami Keshani and his 120 year old seminary. The seminary library has an entire section devoted to ancient handwritten books. They showed us a hand written Qur'an from the 10th century. The Ayatollah, who until recently used to be a member of the Supreme Council (a council of top Iranian clerics who can and do veto any legislation and seems to have greater powers than our Supreme Court). An older and amiable man spoke softly but forcefully on many questions of tension between our nations. One of his answers included a passionate defense of Friday sermons in which sometimes imams say things that inflame passions of the congregants. I came away thinking about what more we need to do to keep our own Christian ayatollah's in check...

In the sacred city of Qom, we ran into a group of Iraqi women who had traveled about 12 hours by bus to worship at the shrine there. When they realized that we were Americans they became very agitated and angry and shouted at us to go home. We later reflected on the deep pain that the war in Iraq has caused them.

» Read more from Shanta Premawardhana

Jeff Carr
Chief Operations Officer for Sojourners/Call to Renewal

Jeff Carr Yesterday we had a meeting at the Iranian Foreign Ministry headquarters, in some of the most beautiful and historic buildings I have ever visited...The meeting was held in a grand ballroom of the main building at the Foreign Ministry, and we were told that we were the first American delegation to have an official meeting in this building since the Islamic Revolution in 1978...The amazing thing was that the Deputy Foreign Minister spent over two hours with our delegation, both making statements and asking questions ...

[Deputy Foreign Minister] Dr. Jalili talked about his feeling as a 14-year-old, being set free from the oppression of the Shah during the revolution. For him, the revolution was a momentous event in his life and the history of his country, a day worthy of celebration and thanksgiving.

"We must find a way to tell our stories and to have our stories heard. And then we must begin to write a new narrative together."
As he told his story, memories of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 began to flood my mind. I could see the images of American citizens being held hostage, with blindfolds, paraded in front of televisions cameras... I don't think I have ever realized how traumatizing those events were for me, and how seared into my memory and psyche they are. How they serve as a filter, even today, 28 years later, to the way I (and I surmise many other Americans) see Iran. It is the narrative that informs my thinking about Iran today and the relationship between our nations.

What I have been thinking about the last few days is not whose narrative is right and whose is wrong. In this case, I'm not sure the facts of these past events are as important as the ways Dr. Jalili and I experienced them. The truth is they are both right, because both of us have a right to tell our own stories.

What is clear to me, however, is that we must find a way to tell our stories and to have our stories heard. And then we must begin to write a new narrative together. One that comes out of humility, mutual respect, and shared understanding. I am convinced it is the only path for a true and lasting peace with justice.

» Read more from Jeff Carr

Joe Volk
Executive Secretary, Friends Committee on national Legislation

Joe Volk Our delegation is not here to negotiate with Iran - we are a religious delegation reaching out to encourage a dialogue between our two nations in the hope of averting a war. We see an openness to negotiations here in Iran.

Sadly, the United States has not demonstrated a similar openness. The U.S. government has refused for many years to enter into any type of negotiations with Iran, focusing instead on a program of sanctions, isolation, and threats of regime change. In statements eerily familiar to the prelude to war in Iraq, the Bush administration is now also warning that Iran may soon have nuclear weapons. But the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, British intelligence and even the U.S. intelligence agencies say Iran is years away from producing nuclear weapons, with still time to talk.

"The U.S. government has this process backwards. You don't have an agreement first and then negotiate."
The U.S. government has this process backwards. You don't have an agreement first and then negotiate; you negotiate leading to an agreement to bring Iran's nuclear program back under nuclear safeguards. That's what Iran wants, that's want El Baradei says would work, and that's what we see as possible.

The Bush administration simply will not listen to these arguments or even enter a room at the foreign ministry to negotiate with Iran. So we at FCNL believe Congress must act to insist that the president not go to war with Iran without a full public debate and congressional approval.

» Read more from Joe Volk