Friday, June 15, 2007

Joe Volk Reports on His Visit to Iran

Religious Leaders Meet with Iran’s President, Other High-Level Officials


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Did you know that from February 18 to 25, 13 U.S. religious leaders from a wide variety of churches — ranging from traditional peace-oriented denominations like the Quakers and Mennonites, who sponsored the trip, to Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists and members of the Church of the Nazarene — went to Iran and had high-level meetings with the country’s current and immediate past presidents? Probably not, if your main news source is the mainstream corporate media, who these days seem to mention Iranians only when they’re questioning the Holocaust, calling for the destruction of Israel, building centrifuges to enrich uranium, holding American and British citizens hostage, or being targeted by U.S. military maneuvers off their coast. But the trip did happen, and Joe Volk, executive secretary of the Friends’ Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), spoke about his experiences in Iran to a San Diego audience at the Church of the Brethren June 13.

Volk opened the meeting by saying quite bluntly that the purpose of the trip was to start a dialogue between the U.S. and Iran to short-circuit the plans of the Bush administration and its neocoservative advisors to attack Iran before Bush leaves office. “We know the U.S. has a targeting plan for Iran, focused on 750 sites allegedly part of their nuclear infrastructure,” Volk said. “The idea is to destroy these targets with air and naval attacks without having to put troops on the ground. They’re also arguing that Iran is helping the insurgency in Iraq, and that Iran is in cahoots with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. A number of us in the religious community thought that this [talk of war with Iran] was very dangerous, and wanted to see if we could start a real dialogue.”

The idea for the trip came from the Mennonite Central Committee, Volk explained. Because they’ve already been involved in Iran for 17 years doing earthquake relief, he said, “They have had to develop important relationships with government and religious officials and people on the ground.” The Iranian government told them in January that they would be willing to admit a religious delegation in February, but they needed a list of the names and affiliations of who would be going immediately. This kept a lot of people who wanted to go from doing the trip, because they couldn’t either rearrange their schedules in time or get permission from their boards of directors. “In future trips, we’ll have greater representation,” Volk said.

According to Volk, the purpose of the trip was not only to visit Iran and meet with Iranians but “raise the tough issues,” so that later they could go to Congress and lobby against a U.S. attack on Iran. They also wanted to go to the mainstream media to encourage them to cover Iran more fairly. “If you go to Iran for six days, that doesn’t make you an expert,” Volk conceded, “but at least what we can tell you what the Iranians tell us.” One other hope they had when they planned the trip was to invite a “reciprocal delegation” of Iranians to visit the U.S. — but those hopes were dashed by officials at the State Department, who refused to guarantee that any Iranians seeking to come to the U.S. as part of an official delegation would be let into this country. (Ironically, after the U.S. delegation returned, State Department staffers asked them why they hadn’t set up a reciprocal trip.)

“We arrived in Tehran at 1:30 a.m. Monday [February 19] and had our first meeting with a representative of the foreign ministry at the airport,” Volk recalled. “The foreign ministry representative said they were very happy to have us there, but there was a problem: there were false rumors about us, including that we were evangelical Christians coming to convert Muslims to Christianity, or that we were posing as religious leaders but were really CIA agents coming to spy. We agreed to stay on the bus and inside our hotel until that calmed down. But two knuckleheads in our group” — and Volk brought the house down when he admitted he was one of them — “went for a walk through Tehran Monday morning to see who we could talk to.”

They were looking for Iranians who could speak English — of whom there are quite a few — and invariably the Iranians asked them if the U.S. was going to attack their country. Volk said they would turn the question around and ask the Iranians if they thought there would be a U.S.-Iran war. “They were resigned that the U.S. would attack — and that they would resist,” Volk said. “We said we were there to keep that from happening.”

Later on Monday the group had its first official meeting, with Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani. Under Iran’s dual system of government, in which religious leaders have veto power over the secular government’s actions as well as the candidates allowed to run for office, the supreme power rests with the cleric who heads the Governing Council. This position was filled by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution, until his death, when he was replaced by the current leader, Ali Khamenei. Kashani is a former member of the Governing Council and reportedly still a close advisor to Khamenei. According to Volk, Kashani told them that he would denounce the rumors against their group in his evening prayer services that night, and would urge other religious leaders to do the same. “The rumors were calmed, and our pictures were in the papers,” Volk said.

Their next official meeting, with a deputy foreign minister, was delayed from Tuesday to Wednesday, which gave the group members the chance to take a tour and meet with some Iranian schoolchildren. The tour included visits to the palaces of the Shah of Iran, who ruled with U.S. support from the CIA-sponsored coup against democratically elected leader Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 until the Shah himself was overthrown by Khomeini’s movement in 1979. The idea behind the tour was to contrast the Shah’s lavish living spaces and lordly isolation from his people with the small room in which Khomeini lived, a bare, Spartan space opening out on an Islamic prayer center, which Volk jokingly said was “suitable for a Quaker.”

The conversations with Iranian schoolchildren came during the tour, on which their teacher was taking them while the Americans were also there. The Americans asked the teacher if any of his students spoke English, and he identified three of them who did. When one member of the delegation, Ron Flaming, asked an English-speaking child what he thought of the U.S., the teacher immediately interrupted and led the class in a chant of “Down with U.S.A.!” — pronouncing the initials phonetically as “oo-sa.” Nonetheless, the kids came up to the Americans later and told them how excited they were to be seeing people from “oo-sa” in the flesh — leading Volk to conclude that the anti-American chant was about as meaningful as a football cheer in a U.S. high school, and served a similar purpose of expressing “school spirit.”

On Wednesday the group got to meet with Dr. Said Jalili, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for the U.S. and Europe. One Iranian official noted this was the first meeting between Iranian diplomats and an official delegation from the U.S. — even a private one — since 1979, when the taking of 64 American diplomats hostage by a private organization of Iranian students (later validated by Khomeini when he endorsed it) led to the end of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran. Jalili took the group aback when he told them, “We have been subjected to the worst types of pressure: eight years of imposed war [referring to the 1980-1988 conflict between Iran and Iraq, in which the U.S. openly helped Saddam Hussein’s regime while covertly selling arms to Iran as well], economic sanctions, and extensive psychological warfare launched by the media against our people.”

One member of the delegation replied, “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.” Another reflected later, “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?”

The group got to go not only to Tehran but also to Qom, the holiest city in Iran and the center of Khomeini’s movement before it took power. “When we met with religious leaders, one thing that struck us is how interested they are in interfaith dialogue,” Volk said. “One graduate student told me he was writing a paper about an obscure historical religious sect of Christians called Quakers. He was surprised that there are Quakers still living, and even more surprised that some of them were there with him. They have an ongoing process of trying to reconcile the different Islamic schools of thought.”

Khatami: The Past President

The high points of the trip, according to Volk, occurred on the last two days: Saturday, February 24, when they met with former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami; and the next day, February 25, when they got a meeting with the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khatami, who served from 1997 until 2005, “is understood to be more moderate than Ahmadinejad, and has been to the U.S. several times,” Volk explained. Volk’s main interest in meeting Khatami was to ask him about a secret letter the Iranian government sent to the U.S. in May 2003 — even though he knew that if asked about the letter, Khatami would have to deny ever having sent it or even having known of its existence.

Sure enough, Khatami seemed to Volk to be following his explanation of what was in the letter and listening in a way that indicated he knew what Volk was saying, even though Volk was speaking English and the meeting was being held via a translator. Once Volk finished, Khatami said something in Farsi to the translator and the translator repeated that the former president had had no idea of the letter’s existence and certainly had not sent it — but as Volk continued to talk about the letter, he said, Khatami’s responses indicated that he knew not only what points were made in the letter but in what order they appeared.

According to Volk, the letter included an offer by Iran to allow “intrusive inspections” of its nuclear facilities to show they were only developing civilian nuclear reactors, not weapons. It also included an offer to work for a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, to stop the attacks on Israel by Hamas militias and use Iran’s influence over the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah to get it to give up its arms and become only a political party and social-service organization. In exchange, Iran asked the U.S. and the international community in general to end economic sanctions against Iran, facilitate Iran’s entry into the World Trade Organization and end U.S. support for the MKO, a group of expatriate Iranians who regularly stage terrorist attacks inside Iran.

“After the meeting,” Volk recalled, “Khatami’s aide came out and said, ‘I want to thank you for raising the letter. The President and I worked on it, as did Khamenei and many government officials.’ I asked what happened to it, and he said, ‘My understanding is that then-secretary of state Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, liked it enough to begin talks, but vice-president Dick Cheney and national security advisor [now secretary of state] Condoleeza Rice objected to it, and it stopped.’”

Volk said that when he got back to the U.S., he checked on that story and got confirmation from one of Powell’s top assistants, Lawrence Wilkerson. According to Wilkerson, Powell’s position was strong enough that he could defy Cheney and Rice on one international issue, but not two — and Powell decided that it was more important to defy them on North Korea and keep the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program going than to defy them on the Iranian letter and the prospects for a U.S.-Iran rapprochement. Indeed, according to Volk, the U.S. not only rejected the Iranian letter but rebuked the government of Switzerland for transmitting it.

Ahmadinejad: The Current President

According to Volk, Iran’s next attempt to mend fences with the U.S. came in September 2006, when he came to New York to address the General Assembly of the United Nations and “to test the waters for an official meeting. He met with 40 religious leaders and invited the Mennonites to come to Iran.” The U.S. religious leaders who came to Iran in February 2007 got 2 1/2 hours of face time with Ahmadinejad — “it could have gone on longer, but we had a plane to catch,” Volk said — and they came prepared to ask him tough questions about Iran’s nuclear program, Ahmadinejad’s public calls for the destruction of Israel, the conference of Holocaust deniers Iran sponsored last year, future bi-national relations and the role of religion in politics generally.

“It took a long time, because we were using translators and talking about hot-button issues over a cultural divide,” Volk recalled. “There were times when the meeting was pleasant, and times when it was difficult. Ahmadinejad is a hot-button demagogue who knows how to hit the buttons to energize his base. Whenever he denounces the U.S. or Israel’s, Iran’s popularity among the other Middle Eastern nations soars, and Ahmadinejad’s own domestic poll numbers go up.” Volk described Ahmadinejad’s saber-rattling as a strategy to take Iranians’ minds off the economic failure of his government — Iran’s unemployment rate is 40 percent, half of its population is 25 or under, and up to one-quarter of Iranians 18 and under are addicted to heroin — and boost his popularity.

Volk said Ahmadinejad told his group that Iran is “ready to talk to the U.S. directly on any topic at any time, if the U.S. will show goodwill.” Ahmadinejad didn’t specify what “show goodwill” meant, but the group took it to mean that the U.S. would have to give up its official policy of seeking regime change in Iran and accept the permanence of Khomeini’s Islamic revolution. On the nuclear issue, Ahmadinejad said that Islam forbids the making or use of weapons of mass destruction — which the delegation had already heard from Kashani and other religious leaders they’d talked to — and when the U.S. group pointed out that Christian theology also forbids WMD’s but that hasn’t stopped the U.S. and other majority-Christian nations from developing them, Ahmadinejad said, “Yes, that’s why we need intrusive inspections.”

According to Volk, the two points that most galled Ahmadinejad about the U.S. policy towards Iran are their insistence that Iran stop enriching uranium and make sweeping concessions before negotiations can even begin, and the continual accusations that Iran is supporting al-Qaeda and other anti-U.S. terrorists. “We negotiate first, then we give away our bargaining chips,” Ahmadinejad said. “We won’t do anything the U.S. tells us to just because the U.S. tells us to do it. The U.S. is a great world power and we are a great regional power.” Ahmadinejad also pointed out that Iran would be making itself a target if it actually developed a nuclear weapon, and that having nukes hadn’t saved the Soviet Union or the apartheid regime in South Africa.

“On terrorism, he and everybody else we talked to were very frustrated that this question even came up.” Volk said. “He kept reminding us, ‘Don’t you know who we are? We are Shi’a Muslims. We are the enemies of the Taliban, of the Wahabist Muslims in Saudi Arabia, and of al-Qaeda. We are not extremists. We are a responsible government.’ On Iraq, he said, ‘We are very happy the U.S. deposed our great enemy, Saddam Hussein. We only wish that we had been asked to help. In our view, a destabilized Iraq that moves towards being a failed state is a detriment to our national interest, and we want to stop it. The government the U.S. has installed in Iraq is led by our Shi’a brothers. We want them to succeed.”

Volk acknowledged that Ahmadinejad “didn’t say anything that would relieve Christians” about the Israel-Palestine issue or the Holocaust denial conference. “We said we were extremely insulted by the conference,” Volk recalled. “He said it was just a scientific inquiry, and we said, ‘No, it wasn’t. You didn’t represent all points of view. When you stand in front of a banner that says, “World Without Zionism,” that doesn’t help.’ He said there’d been Jews at the conference, and we said yes, but only Jews that took the side of the Holocaust deniers.” But Ahmadinejad did say one thing about Israel and Palestine that the members of the group agreed with, Volk reported. “He said, ‘I don’t think there’s any military solution to Israel/Palestine. It has to be a politically negotiated outcome.’”

Aftermath: Congress and the Media

As Volk had said at the outset, “Part of the point of the trip was to build support for the U.S. taking a diplomatic approach” to Iran instead of going to war. After they returned, he recalled, “We had 24 meetings on Capitol Hill in two days, and only one office, a Cuban-American, said, ‘Iranians only understand brute force.’ The others were supportive, and a number of members of Congress asked us if we could help get them into Iran. The view of most of the people we talked to was, ‘Let’s not do in Iran what we did in Iraq. Too dangerous.’”

Volk also had surprisingly good luck doing media interviews, even with talk-show hosts on normally Right-wing stations in places like Oklahoma and Nebraska. He recalled one host from Omaha who had him on a morning show. “I thought he was going to eat me for breakfast,” Volk recalled. Instead, the host made all his points for him — how Iran should be handled militarily and how insane it would be for the U.S. to attack Iran when our forces are already bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan — before Volk even opened his mouth on the show.

Asked why all attempts so far in Congress to stop the administration from going to war with Iran have either been blocked in committee or voted down on the floor, Volk said it had to do with the imminence of the 2008 elections for both President and Congress. “The politicians are getting advice that if they oppose the war in Iraq, they have to do something else to show they’re tough, and Iran is the obvious target because Ahmadinejad has made himself the man you love to hate,” Volk said. “I’m a pacifist and I don’t believe in using war at all, but for people in Congress who do believe in war, they should at least know that you don’t do a war of choice.”

Portions of this article came from the March 23, 2007 episode of the PBS-TV series NOW, which sent a camera crew along with the delegation to Iran and shot 40 hours of film. A full transcript of this broadcast is available online at