A trip to Persepolis

As 2013 begins, so too does the ongoing saga between Iran and the rest of the world over its nuclear program. With each passing day, the world moves closer to military action, the least desired outcome. For the past 33 years, the leaders of the United States and Iran have failed to establish a meaningful dialogue. The consequences of this have been dire, with misunderstandings, misperceptions, and thousands of casualties on both sides.

Today, as Iran faces the specter of preventive strikes on its nuclear facilities, President Obama must be the one to step up and make the first move, to reach out to Iran in a way that the United States has not done since the Islamic Republic was born in 1979. This is President Obama’s China moment, his opportunity to demonstrate the depth of American commitment to peace-driven global leadership. To that end, the president should request a one-on-one meeting with the undisputed leader of the Iranian government, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The history of U.S.-Iran relations since 1979 needs to be put into its proper perspective, and the only way to do that is by establishing a sustained, open dialogue, beginning at the highest levels. It is an uphill diplomatic struggle that will undoubtedly last for several years, and one that may merely end with both sides agreeing to some form of peaceful coexistence. The list of perceived violations and sensitivities is long on both sides. On the one hand, the United States has to contend with popular anger in Iran for U.S. support to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War and the death of hundreds of thousands of Iranians. On the other, Iran must recognize the anger Americans feel for Iran’s support to Hezbollah bombings throughout the 1980s and Iran’s provision of explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) and other forms of lethal support to Shia militias during the Iraq conflict. The U.S. was initially convinced that the OPM/SANG bombing in Saudi Arabia in the mid-1990s was linked to Hezbollah of the Hejaz (i.e., an Iranian-supported operation), when in fact years later it was discovered to be an early al-Qaida attack. Yet another example is the disappearance in Beirut of four Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members in the early 1980s. Iran requested their return from the U.S. on several occasions. Years later, however, the U.S. learned that they had been killed by a Lebanese Christian militia and buried under a paved parking lot in Beirut — without American knowledge or complicity. United Nations personnel would go on to recover their remains and return them to Iran.

Overcoming mutual hostility will not be easy, as both sides continue to mourn significant casualties in this conflict. Hardliners in both Iran and the United States will inevitably condemn their respective governments for even considering a meeting between President Obama and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. They will angrily refer to it as capitulation and likely equate it with political and ideological weakness. That said, there are times when urgent geopolitical realities necessitate a reexamination of priorities and possibilities.

It is important for the United States to make the first move. That is exactly what we did prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 when Ambassador James Dobbins engaged the Iranian government on various forms of assistance. Iran agreed to help with the recovery of downed American pilots, not to interfere with U.S. Special Operations teams operating on the ground in Afghanistan, and to support Karzai’s nomination as interim president in 2002. Unfortunately, the U.S. failed to enter into a similar dialogue before the subsequent U.S. invasion of Iraq.