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Week of 3.23.07

Jamila Paksima on meeting the Iranian president

It is a frightening time—frightening if you're an Iranian and if you are an American. I am both. For this reason I am especially hopeful that the meeting between the 13-member Christian delegation and the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a fruitful, positive one.

NOW Producer Jamila Paksima speaks with former Iranian president Mahmoud Khatami.
Producer Jamila Paksima speaks with former Iranian president Mahmoud Khatami.
When we arrive at the presidential compound in the Iranian capital Tehran, the staff informs us that I will only be allowed to film the greetings and the close of the meeting. But I am allowed to sit in for the entire conversation. We are told the President's office is called the "White Building" (not to be confused with The White House in Washington, D.C.).

The most anticipated and challenging meeting is before the group. President Ahmadinejad, a small man, is wearing a suit rather than the signature sport jacket. This is the first time an American delegation has met with a sitting Iranian President in the Presidential compound since the revolution began in 1979. The enormity of the meeting adds to the pressure. The delegation came prepared to ask questions about nuclear development, the Palestinian issue, and the Holocaust. The president, notorious for his long-winded responses, is actually brief and seems to be quite interested in listening to what the delegation had to share.

He starts the meeting with words of peace and tranquility. When Ahmadinejad speaks about political issues, his position is perfectly clear. On the nuclear issue he will not budge. He echoes the government's position that we heard all week: Iran is entitled to a nuclear program for their own peaceful purposes, and he reiterates that his country has no intention of going to war. President Ahmadinejad encourages the group to continue to work with Iran's clergy and work towards conferences and mutual understanding through the religious leadership in the country.

After the meeting, four of the American delegates describe their impression of the encounter. There was no message from President Ahmadinejad to the American people or to President Bush, and some are disappointed. Though some in the delegation felt this was a brush off, others say the reaction and response was the best it could be for a first-time effort to speak with "the enemy." In all, the delegates didn't accomplish everything they hoped for, but they believed that some progress was made.

Now returning home, can the delegates share a new perspective and encouragement of dialogue between Iran and the U.S? Can they sway American public opinion and members of Congress to think of a new approach with Iran?

Indeed, their hardest work is about to begin.