It is Pope Benedict XVI's prerogative to decide with whom to grant an audience. According to some news sources, the pontiff has agreed to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while he and other world leaders meet in Rome next week for the United Nations summit on global food security. According to VOA.com, however, the Vatican has not yet confirmed the meeting.
If such a meeting is granted, it is not clear whether the pope would meet with Ahmadinejad privately or as part of a group of state leaders. Already, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has declined to conduct bilateral meetings with Ahmadinejad, saying there will not be enough time.
The Vatican has been openly critical of the Iranian leader for his scathing comments toward Israel. Ahmadinejad also asserts that the Holocaust has still to be verified, which would seem an ill-advised topic of conversation with a pope of German heritage.
Ahmadinejad's rhetoric aside, there is growing evidence that Iran has not been forthcoming about its nuclear program. A report issued Monday by the United Nations' nuclear watchdog says Iran may be withholding information needed to determine whether it tried to make nuclear weapons. In response, Iran's new parliament speaker warned Tehran could impose limits on its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. It is unclear what is meant by "new limits," but since 2006, Tehran has limited its cooperation to its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. That pact does not require Iran to allow short-notice intrusive inspections of its facilities.
The pope has, in the past, called for continued diplomacy to resolve the stand-off over Iran's nuclear program. Just as Pope John Paul II played an instrumental role in ending the Cold War, the Vatican could play a key role in this issue, too. The Vatican and Iran, after all, have maintained diplomatic ties for more than 50 years.
Care should be given to ensure that Ahmadinejad does not use any meeting with the pontiff to further his personal ambitions. Iran's new Parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, is a political rival to Iran's president. In recent weeks, Shiite clerics have been openly critical of Ahmadinejad for using religion to distract attention from his government's failure to deliver on promises of prosperity and political freedoms.
It remains to be seen how the Vatican handles Ahmadinejad's request. Hopefully, it will be handled in a manner that maximizes the opportunity to bring about a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear program but that at the same time minimizes Ahmadinejad's opportunities to grandstand.