A group of prominent U.S. Christian leaders visited Iran and met with the country's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in late February in stated hopes of convincing him to moderate his rhetoric. Instead, they helped rehabilitate the firebrand president's image.
Upon their return to the United States, they issued a statement that ignored Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel rhetoric and Holocaust denial and downplayed Iran's suspected efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.
The group was comprised of officials from numerous Christian churches and church organizations, including Pax Christi, USA, the Mennonite Central Committee, the American Friends Service Committee, the National Council of Churches and the Episcopal Church.
The Feb. 25 statement, which includes calls for both the U.S. and Iran to engage in direct face-to-face talks and to "cease using language that defines the other using 'enemy' images," accepted at face value Ahmadinejad's assurances on the nuclear question:
What the delegation found most encouraging from the meeting with President Ahmadinejad was a clear declaration from him of no intention to acquire or use nuclear weapons, as well as a statement that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be solved through political, not military means.
At a Feb. 26 press conference at the National Press Club in Washington D.C., Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, associate general secretary for interfaith relations at the National Council of Churches, also unquestioningly relayed the Iranian position. "Ahmadinejad insists that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon," he explained. "Indeed, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni, under whose authority the nuclear program rests, has issued a 'fatwa' (edict) that making or using nuclear weapons goes against Islamic teaching."
The International Atomic Energy Agency was not as moved by the Iranian assurances. Only a few days after the church leaders expressed their encouragement with the Iranian leaders' promises, IAEA chief Mohamed Elbaradei said that "the IAEA's confidence about the nature of Iran's program has been shaken because of two decades of undeclared activities. This confidence will only be restored when Iran takes the long overdue decision to explain and answer all the agency's questions and concerns about its past nuclear activities in an open and transparent manner." And it was two days before the delegation's meeting with Ahmadinejad that the IAEA released a report indicating that Iran ignored a Security Council deadline to end enrichment work. The report noted that "Iran has not suspended its enrichment-related activities," and has instead escalated its enrichment of nuclear fuel.
The group's meeting with Ahmadinejad appears to have provided the Iranian president positive coverage in Iran. A March 1, 2007 article published in the Tehran Times reported that J. Daryl Byler, director of the Mennonite Central Committee's Washington office described Ahmadinejad as "having a measured tone, seeming reasonable and having a witty personality." Byler confirmed this quote.
When challenged about the Feb. 26 statement's failure to condemn Ahmadinejad's harsh rhetoric toward Israel, Byler told CAMERA that the issue was raised forcefully during the group's conversation with Ahmadinejad. Delegates admonished him that "rhetoric does matter," Byler told CAMERA. The issue was not included in the group's public statement, Byler explained, because "You can't put everything into a statement." He added that the statement did include a "mutual call" for both Iran and the U.S. to tone down the rhetoric.
When asked if it is reasonable to expect that President Ahmadinejad would actually change his rhetoric in response to his meeting with the delegation, Byler stated "We'll find out ... We raised the issue as clearly as we know how to raise it. We hope Israel is more secure as a result of raising these issues."
Four days after the delegation's meeting Ahmadinejad appeared in Sudan, where according to Islamic Republic News Agency (Iran's official news service), he said "Zionists are the true manifestation of Satan."
The delegation, which apparently hoped its meeting with Ahmadinejad would serve to moderate his rhetoric, instead provided the Iranian president a public relations victory.