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March 23, 2007
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Transcript - March 23, 2007

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.

There's a developing story in Iran, which has seized 15 British sailors. The claim: they strayed into Iran's territorial waters—and this at a time when Iran is lobbying the UN security council against imposing tough new sanctions. The vote is this weekend.

The UN wants to discourage Iran from taking steps to build a nuclear bomb ...and that's just one of the powder keg issues that's ratcheted up tensions between Iran and the US. There's been saber-rattling from the presidents of both countries...the US has even moved aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf near Iran.

Into the middle of this standoff comes a group of American religious leaders who hope to point the two countries toward the negotiating table and away from a bloody conflict. They're traveling to Iran with the promise of meeting the country's top religious and political leaders.

NOW was invited to go along on this historic visit. Our reporter has her own connection to the story: Jamila Paksima, born and raised in Iran until age 14, is now an American journalist with dual Iranian and American citizenship.

PAKSIMA: We arrive in the Islamic republic of Iran in the quiet of the night, and we're whisked off in the bus that would become our companion.

This is Azadi Square...it was built by the Shah, Reza Pahlavi.

It was in Azadi square that Ayatollah Zhomeini met over a million of his supporters when he returned from exile in February 1979, and led a revolution that changed the course of my country. That was 28 years ago.

And just a week before we arrive tens of thousands of Iranians have gathered in the same square to mark the anniversary of the revolution.

Anti-American sentiment still runs high.

CROWD: Death to America

SPEAKER: The hatred and rage of the Muslim people

CROWD: The hatred and rage of the Muslim people

SPEAKER: is directed towards America, the infidel satanic regime.

CROWD: is directed towards America, the infidel satanic regime.

PAKSIMA: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad uses the occasion to declare his country will unveil further nuclear capabilities in early April.

AHMADINEJAD: This celebration is the Iranian people's great celebration of its nuclear energy.

SPEAKER: No way will we have relations with America.

CROWD: No way will we have relations with America.

PAKSIMA: No relations with America ...that has been the official party line for 28 years. But at the same time these crowds were chanting Iran was approving visa's for this group of thirteen American religious leaders invited by President Ahmadinejad himself to come and meet with his country's top leaders.

Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana is here representing Episcopalians, Methodists, evangelicals and dozens of other denominations in the united states.

PREMAWADHANA: When political leaders mess up, religious leaders ought to be here to go and build up the people, build up the relationships and bring the conversation up the high moral ground.

PAKSIMA: My two nations appear to be on the brink of war. I wonder how a religious delegation like theirs with no official government role can make a difference.

MCNISH: I think the fact that we're here is showing the Iranian people that there are some Americans who care deeply about what they think.

PAKSIMA: Mary Ellen McNish is secretary general of the American friends service committee. Peace promoting Quakers and Mennonites, organized the trip.

Before our meetings begin, the women need approved clothing and head coverings. The Hejab - is the mandatory Islamic clothing even visitors to Iran must wear.

JAMILA: I don't think she wants to be chic. Do you want to be chic?

MCNISH: I Think plain is good for this trip.

PAKSIMA: In Iran it is the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei who is the commander-in chief like our president he is the only one who can declare war or order the buildup of nuclear arms.

Our first day we will be meeting with one of his top advisors... Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani. Famous for the anti American rhetoric he unleashes in Friday prayers.

The topic is nuclear development and Iran's alleged involvement in the Iraq war.

Kashani is blunt but not anti-American.

KASHANI: We heard that Mr. Bush or Ms. Rice, one of them, said that the American soldiers had been killed in Iraq by the Iranian weapons. And, that's a big lie.

PAKSIMA: Ayatollah Kashani sticks to Iran's party line on nuclear issues - he says "Iran has the right to develop energy for peaceful purposes."

Ed Martin is director of South East Asian affairs with the Mennonite Central Committee.

MARTIN: I've read some that—Ayattollah Khamanei has issued a fatwa saying that it is against the Koran for Muslims to either build or stockpile or use nuclear weapons.

KASHANI: That's true there is such a fatwa. Why would we want to make nuclear arms? It is forbidden in Islam to kill human beings.

MARTIN: Well that's very good to hear. And I'm glad to hear that confirmed.

PAKSIMA: Encouraging words. But back on the bus not everyone is convinced.

CARR: The Fatwa thing, that's the hardest thing for me to believe.

SHEA: Are there serious Fatwahs and not so serious Fatwah's are there ones that get broadcast widely and ones that get quietly passed? Are we having a little spin here?

PAKSIMA: Others welcome the Ayatollah's stance on nuclear weapons.

MCNISH: It was very reassuring to me.

PAKSIMA: Why do you think the American people haven't heard this?

MCNISH: Because they get a picture painted by the US government inflamed by the media who only want to be able to spread the word that will get the most viewers and that, for me, is fear.

PAKSIMA: What has been the role of the American media?

For the most part they pass on what the administration has to say.

BUSH: There are weapons in Iraq that are harming US troops because of the Quds Force. And as you know, I hope, that the Quds Force is a part f the Iranian government.

FOX: The president talked about it a couple of weeks ago, when he talked about the Quds force.

CNN: The military is holding a top leader of Iran's Al Qud force in Iraq, of course these are the radicals that we were talking about that are allegedly making weapons and funneling them into Iraq.

PAKSIMA: Rarely does the American press go inside the story and cover what is really going on here.

When you do see news on Iran...it is when President Bush is threatening the country

And FOX News, and even major newspapers like the Washington Post, echo the administration's hard line position.

It's become a shouting match between two countries. Will the voices of church people even be heard?

PAKSIMA: What on earth are a bunch of religious people doing trying to negotiate peace between Iran and the US.

SHEA: We're not trying to play the US government here. That's really important. We're here to try and reduce tensions. And who better than people of faith and religious people to come and do that.

PAKSIMA: Iran, I find, has tensions of its own. How do Ahmadinejad's pronouncements about nuclear energy play?

Some Iranians point out it's President Ahmadinejad's failure to meet his domestic promises that has him ratcheting up the nuclear conflict and using explosive language about Israel. It's a sort of diversion.

Like his now famous pledge to wipe Israel off the map.

Since Ahmadinejad became president unemployment has risen to fifteen percent and inflation has nearly tripled the cost of housing. In his campaign slogan he promised the Iranian people he would put oil money on every families table. It hasn't happened.

HAMID: That is our question for him; he didn't bring our money in our table.

PAKSIMA: I'm surprised that someone like Hamid who I met on the street would be so openly critical.

HAMID: We don't know how much costs for us the nuclear program. It costs so much that it is putting this much much money and so much pressure, international pressures for us.

PAKSIMA: And we find that regular Iranians have a lot to say about America as well.

PAKSIMA: Ron Flaming of the Mennonite central committee seizes the opportunity to speak with a group of school boys. The teacher wants Ron to talk with the best English speaker in his class.

FLAMING: What's your name, age? This your class? What do your parents do?

BOY: My father's a lawyer. My mother's a doctor.

FLAMING: What do you hear about America?

BOY: America?

PAKSIMA: The teacher starts coaching his student. First in Farsi then in English and we hear an all too familiar chant: "down with USA"

TEACHER: Say Down with USA

STUDENTS: Down with USA

PAKSIMA: I can't help but notice that in spite of the words coming out of their mouths, the boys are in fact quite eager to engage with the group of visiting Americans

We meet up with the boys later in a prayer room connected to Khomeini's home. It was time for noon prayers.

CARR: I think all kids, whether it's in Iran or it's in the United States—kids learn hate. They're not born with hate. It concerns me that that might be the way adults are teaching kids here. But I know our own country, we have adults who want to teach kids to hate.

PAKSIMA: How do you move from hate to understanding? You have to begin with some history.

Iranian officials say their problems with America began in 1953.

When the US engineered an overthrow of their elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and brought back the Shah. To the US the Shah was a friend. To many Iranians, he was a brutal dictator.

MCNISH: The American media at the time did not talk about it being a CIA orchestrated coup.

PAKSIMA: For most Americans the collective memory of Iran starts in 1979 when 52 Americans were held hostage at the US embassy —a crisis broadcast night after night for 444 days in the United States.

It makes the delegation realize that there are two distinct narratives of Iran / US relations. It is a concept I grew up with.

PREMAWARDHANA: How do you bring those narratives together is probably the mo—the most critical question that is before us as we continue on this journey towards building friendships with people of Iran.

PAKSIMA: It also helps to understand today's Iran.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a superpower in the Middle East, a booming and modern nation and the 4th largest producer of oil in the world. And...it a very young country...65% of its population is under the age of 25.

And young people here have grown up hearing that the US is the enemy - especially its president.

Rajabi: George Bush, he has problem about people in Islamic country I think. I think he doesn't understand anything about Iran. He just wanted to give everything by war. He don't like to speak and, uh, conversation.

PAKSIMA: Our group is all about conversation but I sense they're growing frustrated. Though they've done a lot of listening they're really yearning for deep dialogue.

CARR: If we have one more meeting where they give a speech and we give a speech and they say they love the prophet Jesus and we love the prophet Mohammed, which is fine, I mean I'm glad that everybody love everybody, but it ends up- it feels... choreographed, formulaic. Yesterday I was just like...

PAKSIMA: Day three and the UN deadline is about to expire. The Security Council has told Iran it must stop enriching uranium or face severe sanctions. In Iran, the headlines quote the president taunting the West. He says "we'll halt enrichment if you do."

PAKSIMA: Meanwhile, the group is about to make history. They will be the first American delegation to meet in the foreign ministry in decades.

PAKSIMA: It seems mind boggling to me that church leaders are here talking about nuclear issues in the foreign ministry, which has never had an American step inside there to have a conversation in 28 years.

MCNISH: It is pretty mind boggling- but we believe it is our responsibility to bring up these issues because they go to the core of our faith.

PAKSIMA: In the grand meeting room dr. Said Jalili, deputy foreign minister for Europe and America speaks passionately about Iran and America's strained relations.

JALILI: We have been subjected to the worst types of pressure, 8 years of imposed war, economic sanctions. And extensive psychological warfare launched by the media against our people.

PAKSIMA: Jalili ticks off example after example of American actions that have caused suffering and death in Iran.

It was American forces that shot down an Iran air passenger plane in 1988 killing 224 adults and sixty-six children.

It was Americans who supported and supplied arms and chemical weapons to Saddam's forces during the 8 year Iran/Iraq war that killed hundreds of thousands.

ROBINSON: I hear in your voice and in your passion, the pain of your people for the last 50 years. I would say to you today that we feel as a nation that we owe you an apology as a people for some of that pain.

PAKSIMA: The meeting with Jalili is a turning point for the delegation. Some are touched to the core of their Christian souls...

CARR: The only way you bring about reconciliation as Christians - is by repentance, you know, but how does a nation repent? The challenge for me just in thinking about it, how does a nation say they're sorry and then turn and move in a different direction?

PAKSIMA: Is it naïve to try to navigate a political minefield according to Christian principles?

PAKSIMA: Some people would say that your delegation is being hand fed the party line here, and you guys are buying it hook, line and sinker.

MCNISH: You can't say we're not asking the hard questions. We are. But, are we understanding deeply the pain that the Iranian people have suffered at the hands of the American foreign policy.

PAKSIMA: Day five, we take off from Tehran, to spend the day in Qom.
It is the most holy city in Iran and the center for Shiaa Muslims.

The shrine of Hazrate Mashoumeh, is the burial place of Fatima, one of the only shrines in Iran dedicated to a woman. For these religious leaders, this is a high point.

The delegates dress respectfully, but even hidden behind their chadors their presence in this conservative city becomes a security issue. Suddenly without explanation, we are asked to leave the mosque.

PAKSIMA: OK, I have some news from our host, their concerned cause people in town are now talking that there are Americans here, and they said they're responsible for every hair on your head and they're nervous. They recommend that you don't go on the streets

PAKSIMA: What's behind the nervousness? The UN deadline has just expired. But here in Qom, nobody seems too bothered.

PAKSIMA: Do you think Iranians have the right to have nuclear arms?

MOHAMMED: Yeah, I think so.

PAKSIMA: Mohammed is studying in Australia.

MOHAMMED: I think Iran's allowed to have it, because everyone else is having it, no one's telling them to stop it but they're trying to stop Iran.

PAKSIMA: He says Iranians deserve the same respect the us and the world gives its neighbors, Russia, Pakistan and India, all of whom have nuclear energy and nuclear arms. Why not Iran?

But around the world there's criticism of Iran's refusal to stop uranium enrichment.

BBC WORLD: Iran ignored a UN deadline...the five permanent members of the UN Security council plus Germany will meet on Monday to discuss further sanctions.

PAKSIMA: Next we meet with the former President Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami. He is known as a reformer and we are told he is still influential behind the scenes.

Khatami is concerned that what's happening in Iraq may next come to Iran.

KHATAMI: God forbid we should have another mistake or crisis in the region. Of course Iranians and Americans would suffer. I hope the American Government and people are wise and smart enough to pay attention and to avoid this problem.

PAKSIMA: The former president seems happy in a rare encounter with Americans.

PAKSIMA: I traveled with this delegation, and I'm wondering do you really believe that there is hope that they can go back and make a difference?

KHATAMI: This is very different—difficult. But, you must try. You must try. You—we—we—all of us must try to change the situation.

PAKSIMA: I agree.

KHATAMI: But, is really difficult.

PAKSIMA: He switches back to our native language ...."it's difficult" he says, "but we have to try!"

It is the end of the journey and we are on our way to the most anticipated and difficult conversation of the week.

The delegates are the first group of Americans to meet with a sitting president at his compound since the revolution.

This is what they've been preparing for.

Notoriously provocative, Ahmadinejad starts out saying something the group agrees with.

AHMADINEJAD: Peace and tranquility will only become sustainable if it is based on justice and honoring God.

PAKSIMA: But this is the time for the group to ask tough questions.

They challenge the president for doubting the holocaust.

Annoyed, Ahmadinejad gives no ground saying he wants to do more research on what really happened.

On the nuclear issue, does he really want to build a bomb?

His answer: Iran has no intentions of developing nuclear weapons.

That's the message we have heard all week.

Now a headline: the Americans have come promoting dialogue, and Ahmadinjad tells them, quote: "I have no reservations about conducting talks with Americans if we see good will."

AHMADINEJAD: I am very confident, I am very sure that all of you are working for peace.

PAKSIMA: This group of Christian leaders is relieved to see there is some chance of dialogue, now, on to Washington, with the message that when tensions are so high its all the more reason to begin talks.

SHEA: When we go into Congressional offices we can now say, "We've been there. We've talked to people. We've talked to the government. We've talked to the religious leaders. This is what we've seen. This is what we've heard." That's an extraordinary gift because of course nobody else—hardly anyone else is getting to come to Iran.

MCNISH: This is the beginning. This is the very beginning.

PAKSIMA: I hope for a beginning as well, as I travel between by two feuding nations. I hope that the door that has been locked for so long will now crack open.

BRANCACCIO: Since the delegation has returned from Iran, they have been meeting with members of Congress, lobbying for diplomatic engagement with Iran, They've been finding support from both Democrats and Republicans on this.

They're also lobbying for legislation that would require the president to seek Congressional approval before launching military action against Iran.

That's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio.



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