A trip to Persepolis

As for past proposals of rapprochement between Iran, Israel, and the U.S., there are precedents that seem to make sense. Influential Iranian conservatives, such as former Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Mohsen Rezai, have supported the idea of a cold peace between Iran, Israel, and the United States. In general terms, Iran would end its material support for armed groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, while stopping short of reestablishing diplomatic relations with Israel. This would contribute to Israeli security while allowing Iran to maintain its own sense of ideological identity and political legitimacy. At the same time, Iran and the United States would begin to rebuild bilateral relations with the short-term goal of achieving cooperation on terrorism and other issues of common concern.

The First Steps: First, President Obama announces his willingness to travel to Tehran to meet with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Upon receiving an invitation for such a meeting, the U.S. would agree to suspend several of the economic sanctions for a limited period in exchange for the return of Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini and cooperation on identifying and returning the remains of Israeli navigator Ron Arad, who disappeared at the hands of Iranian proxies in Lebanon during the 1980s. Second, the Obama-Khamenei meeting would be preceded by direct talks in a neutral location such as Muscat or Doha between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Akbar Salehi, along with FBI Director Robert Mueller and the Commander of Iranian Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) Ismail Ahmadi Moghadam. Kerry and Salehi would devise a framework for the meeting between President Obama and Supreme Leader Khamenei, while Mueller and Moghadam would discuss a range of security-related issues, from the disappearance of former FBI agent Bob Levinson to the growth of Salafi terrorism.

The Meeting: While most of the Iranian government will rally behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the same may not be true for President Obama. Deep partisan divisions continue to afflict the U.S. government, and show little sign of abating in the near future. For that reason, it would behoove President Obama to take the unprecedented step of asking House Speaker John Boehner to be a member of his delegation. This would enable the U.S. to speak from a more unified position. The Iranians are likely to request removal of sanctions, the unfreezing of Shah-era assets, and the right to proceed with its pursuit of peaceful nuclear energy. The U.S. should accept these requests once the international community has what it needs to verify that Iran is not involved in the pursuit of nuclear weapons. This is best done through ongoing multi-lateral initiatives such as the P5+1 talks, IAEA inspections, etc. The goal of this meeting is to end the nuclear standoff and avoid war, not to initiate a series of cultural exchanges or civilizational dialogues.

As followers of the same God, we believe there is a responsibility to do everything possible to avoid armed conflict and unnecessary loss of human life. At the same time, given the seriousness of the dangers associated with a nuclear arms race in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. and its allies must be prepared to exercise military options if diplomacy ultimately fails. Unlike Saddam’s army, however, the Iranians are deeply nationalistic and will stand, fight, and sacrifice for their cause. While the U.S. and Iran may very well continue to disagree on how to resolve several complex international issues, this is one that cannot end in a stalemate. History has shown that there is room for negotiation between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The same, however, will never be true with al-Qaida and the growing Salafi menace.

Gary Berntsen is a former CIA officer and bestselling author of “Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.” Mr. Berntsen appears frequently as a guest on Fox News, CNN and The Blaze providing national security commentary. Scott Modell is a former CIA officer and senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).