Obama and Rouhani Crossing Paths at the U.N.: Will They Take the Next Step?

09/19/2013 02:39 pm ET | Updated Nov 19, 2013

By Najmedin Meshkati & Guive Mirfendereski

Do you remember anything, any noteworthy speech or event from the opening sessions of the United Nations General Assembly that begins each year on the third Tuesday of September? If the answer is "no," then you are not alone. On the other hand, there are some theatrics of the absurd that attracted some attention in the past: the 1960 shoe-banging episode by the Soviet Prime minister Nikita Khrushchev, the Venezuelan Hugo Chávez's 2006 denunciation of President George W. Bush as the devil who left a sulfurous odor at the rostrum, the Libyan Muammar Gaddafi's 2009 rambling 100-minute gibberish, and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 2012 grandiose pontification about the management of global affairs to a mostly empty chamber.

The opening sessions of the General Assembly are often more show than substance. Flowery speeches by dignitaries call for justice, moral values, prosperity and for that ever elusive notions, equality and world peace. Leaders and their entourage travel to New York City on this annual pilgrimage to pay homage to the ideals of the Charter and remind every one of their own righteousness and the evil ways of certain others. Then they all pack up and go home and the United Nations goes back to its bureaucratic routine and business as usual.

However, this year -- like all in other years -- the assembled leaders could meet behind-the-scenes or the sidelines of the formal proceedings to make contact with the heretofore untouchables, exchanges views, and even come to some major understanding about bilateral or common global problems. President Barack Obama and Iran's newly elected President Hassan Rouhani, if not their representatives, should take this opportunity to meet informally and begin a respectful and cordial conversation aimed at the thawing of the tortured frozen relations between the two countries since the seizure of the U.S. Embassy nearly 34 years ago. Already, Obama and Rouhani have exchanged messages, even though the content of the communication has not been made public.

It is time for the U.S. and Iran to pay common attention to the issues confronting the powder-keg that is the Middle East, including ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction, beginning with Syria and then Israel and Iran, the Arab-Israeli peace process, and curbing of Islamic radicalism that is being fueled by Saudi Arabia's open disdain for Iran and all things shi'i.

The newly appointed Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, a seasoned diplomat and negotiator, has noted in his writings that the U.S.-Iranian non-relations has created such an atmosphere that a miscalculation or error on the part of either party can trigger a serious confrontation between two countries. In his recently published memoir of his days as Iran's UN ambassador (Aghay-i safir, Mr. Ambassador, 2013), Zarif argues again for a paradigm shift in the U.S.-Iranian relations. He first laid out the argument in a 2007 article published in the Journal of International Affairs.

Rouhani and his foreign minister, Zarif, are old hands when it comes to Iran's nuclear issue. Rouhani was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator from October 2003 to August 2005, who -- according to his book entitled National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy (2012) -- in April 2004 tacitly agreed with and confided to Mohamed ElBaradei, the then-Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, that the key to resolving the nuclear issue is to negotiate directly with the United States. In light of the degree of nuclear negotiating experience and cumulative institutional memory resident in Rouhani and Zarif, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently sanctioned the transfer of the Iranian nuclear file from Iran's Supreme National Security Council to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The move is significant in that Iran, having achieved a level of nuclear technical capability to enrich uranium and manufacture fuel rods for nuclear reactors, may now address the international concern over the Iranian nuclear program as a matter of routine international negotiations conducted by the foreign ministry.

Time is ripe for a new paradigm in the U.S.-Iranian relations. The U.S. should recognize that sanctions and threat or use of economic coercion are largely ineffective in producing their primary objective. Sanctions didn't change Saddam Hussein's and Muammar Gaddafi's behavior, haven't affected North Korea, and Cuba has survived in spite of comprehensive U.S. sanctions. And they certainly have not resulted in Iran stepping back from enriching uranium.

The proponents of further tightening of the so-called crippling sanctions -- marketed with the oxymoronic label "smart sanctions" -- point to the significant drop in Iran's oil exports, shortage of foreign currency and the economic hardship as evidence of the effectiveness of sanctions. While sanctions have produced those economic and financial effects, however, those hardships have had zero effect in achieving the U.S. objective, which was to scale back or eliminate Iran's nuclear program. By the way, the European Court of Justice a few days ago struck down the European Union's sanctions against Iran Shipping Lines and 17 other related Iranian companies.

Another myth of the past three decades has been that the U.S. efforts have isolated Iran politically and diplomatically. The attendance of dignitaries at the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Tehran in August 2012 once more demonstrated that isolating Iran is an unattainable fantasy -- a distant mirage. On the other hand, U.S. policy has been successful when based on constructive and positive engagement.

A start of a lukewarm U.S.-Iranian rapprochement now would eventually lead to achieving a joint strategic vision for the Middle East. There is precedent to build on. Already in the 1990s the U.S. and Iran cooperated in the Balkans; later on in 2001 brought about a transitional government to the post-Taliban Afghanistan; and Iran helped stabilize Iraq following the American invasion and occupation of that country. There is no reason why the two countries cannot set aside ad hocism and adopt an institutionalized course of regular consultations, if not cooperation, regarding pressing regional issues. Only recently, Iran announced its support for the international control of the Syrian chemical weapons, and Obama told a TV network interviewer that Iran could play an effective role in the resolution of the Syrian crisis.

It all begins with a firm handshake and words of courtesy and pleasantry to break the ice. The U.S. can begin by seeing Iran as a part of the solution to America's strategic challenges in the Middle East, and Iran should accept that not all ills that befall it is America's fault and that it too deserves some blame for the perception that it is capable of being wily and evil.

Najmedin Meshkati is Professor of Engineering at University of Southern California and a former Jefferson Science Fellow and Senior Science and Engineering Advisor with the Office of Science and Technology Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State (2009-2010). Guive Mirfendereski a professorial lecturer in international law at Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, and is the author of A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea: Treaties, Diaries, and Other Stories (2001).