It has been nearly 33 years since a president of the United States met face-to-face with the leader of the world’s 20th most populace country; a nation that enjoys the third largest known reserves of oil and the second greatest reserves of natural gas. Yet, if President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, retired General James Jones, is to be believed, the upcoming convening of the United Nations General Assembly may very well bring together the leaders of the United States and Iran for the first time since Jimmy Carter hosted the Shah of Iran in the White House in November 1977.
This is not the first time the stars aligned in favor of a meeting of these two adversaries. In February 2009, less than one month after Obama was sworn in, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said publicly that his country was “ready for talks” with Washington. These overtures were not immediately embraced by the Obama administration, but a month later, on March 20, 2009, in a carefully-scripted speech clearly directed to Tehran, Obama praised the Iranian people and urged if not a thawing of relations, at least the start of a new beginning.
In the 17 months since Obama’s Iranian New Year’s speech, the U.N. has imposed a fourth round of economic sanctions on Iran (in June of this year); the regime in Tehran has crushed a populist uprising; Russia reportedly is ready to begin loading uranium fuel into Iran’s first nuclear reactor; the U.S. has deployed Patriot defensive missile batteries to four Persian Gulf countries; and both Israel and the U.S. have stepped up talk of a potential military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Outside observers might be forgiven for concluding that this series of events would hardly portend an historic meeting between two leaders whose rhetoric often matches that of World Wrestling Entertainment fighters rather than participants in a diplomatic minuet. In point of fact, however, the environment in which General Jones made his veiled but pointed prediction that “the door is open” for direct talks between Tehran and Washington, is conducive to just such an occurrence precisely because of what has happened over the past year and a half.
Despite Iran’s blustering responses to saber-rattling by the West, when a top Middle Eastern diplomat – such as the ambassador from the United Arab Emirates to the United States – makes a public statement just one month ago that military action against Iran is something his country “could live with,” Iran’s leaders have to perk up their ears. And on the economic front, even though Iran’s leaders absorb the economic hits caused by the U.N.’s tightening embargo as a point of pride in standing up its “enemies,” the country’s sluggish economy is sapping public support for the regime.
President Obama seems also to recognize that a military strike against Tehran, which would occasion cheers from neo-cons in Washington, would set in motion a series of events that would make the Iraq quagmire look like a walk in the park. And, unlike his predecessor at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the current occupant appears to understand that there remains a significant reservoir of pro-American sentiment throughout most segments of Iranian society — an advantage that would be unleashed with a thawing of relations, but not as a result of military action which would have just the opposite effect.
General Jones packaged his entreaty to Tehran with a quid pro quo that could be easily met by Ahmadinejad – releasing the three American hikers who strayed into that nation’s territory a year ago and who have been jailed there ever since.
Much good could come of direct Washington-Tehran meetings, with no real downside, save the inevitable carping by the far right which lusts for military action. Let us hopes leaders in both capitals have the vision and backbone to actually grasp this small olive branch.