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.
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).