Hindsight Being 20/20, Obama Should Embrace Iran's Overture

09/24/2013 06:56 pm ET | Updated Nov 24, 2013

Co-authored by Guive Mirfendereski

In August 1997, Mohammad Khatami, a moderate, took office as president of Iran. At the time, President Bill Clinton was in the middle of his second term. The U.S. at the time had been demanding that Iran not pursue development of weapons of mass destruction, cease its support of international terrorism, and support the Middle East peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians.

On August 3 of this year, the Iranians installed yet another elected moderate president in the person of Hassan Rouhani. The U.S. demands from Iran are the same today as they were 16 years ago, except that today -- as U.S. observed the 12th anniversary of 9/11 -- the al Qaeda-infested Afghanistan has given place to a resurgent Taliban and the misery of the Iraqis suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein has given way to misery of the Syrian people under Bashar al-Assad. The Arab spring and its aftermath in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain frame the larger geo-strategic picture of a Middle East and North Africa in which there is much that is wrong.

One should wonder if the world would have turned out differently had President Clinton and President Khatami forged a common strategic vision in the late 1990s, especially when it came to ridding Afghanistan of the Saudi-backed Taliban and especially al-Qaeda.

Some did.

Fifteen years ago, in September 1998 we published an opinion piece entitled "Clinton and Khatami Crossing Paths at the U.N.: Converging Policies Over Afghanistan," in Iran News, an English-language daily newspaper in Tehran. (The text of that article appears below.) In that article, 3 years before the 9/11 attacks, while pointing out that the Taliban-governed Afghanistan was providing a safe haven for Osama bin Laden, we argued why the U.S. and Iran should join forces against Islamic extremism by countering Saudi Arabia's policy of bankrolling and cultivating Wahabi and Salafi radicalism, which, continues to dog American interests around the world. We concluded that the "U.S. standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the forces of moderation in Iran would also result in further isolation of the extremist and rejectionist elements in the Middle East, leading possibly to the revival of the Peace Process."

The situation in Afghanistan then has an eerie similarity with the present-day situation in Syria, a country on the verge of collapsing into a failed state under the influence of the Saudi-backed extremist and radical insurgents. The converging national interests of the U.S. and Iran on curtailing Islamic extremism, stopping terrorism, and bringing stability and peace back to a volatile region presents a compelling framework for U.S.-Iranian cooperation. This can begin by Obama and Rouhani laying out in their speeches before the General Assembly a vision of cooperation based on good faith and mutual respect. Much detail will have to be worked out, but no journey begins without taking a first step; no dialogue begins without uttering a good word.

Clinton and Khatami squandered a golden opportunity and together made a strategic blunder of epic proportion by not working on a common cause in Afghanistan in 1998. The Spanish-American Philosopher George Santayana once said "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This time around, we can only hope that we don't have to be urging again a meeting of Iranian and American leaders at the U.N. or any other place some twelve years from now.

Who knows what perils await the U.S. and Iran in the future, but the world is always a safer place when there is less animosity and acrimony; and where people talk to one another. Was not the world a safer and more stable place when Iran and the U.S. were interacting?

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).

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Published in the Iran News (an English language daily newspaper in Tehran, Iran), September 19, 1998

Clinton and Khatami Crossing Paths at the U.N.:
Converging Policies Over Afghanistan

Najmedin Meshkati & Guive Mirfendereski

Do you remember anything, any noteworthy speech or event from one of the opening sessions of the United Nations General Assembly, which begins each year on the third Tuesday in September, in the last two, five, or even ten years? If the answer is no, you are not alone.

The opening sessions are often more show than substance. Flowery speeches by dignitaries call for justice, equality, prosperity and for that ever elusive notion, world peace. With pocketful of per diem, leaders travel to New York City on this annual pilgrimage to pay homage to the ideals of the Charter and remind everyone of their own righteousness and the evil of certain others. Then they all pack and go home and the United Nations goes back to its routine. However, some behind-the-scenes visits and exchanges of views do take place between world leaders which can be historically significant. A meeting between President Clinton and President Khatami of Iran will be indeed historic if not politically significant for both of these baby-boomer heads of state, each highly educated and learned but each in his way embattled on the home front. They are scheduled to be in New York on September 21, 1998, to address the U.N. General Assembly. Mr. Khatami must have great expectations for the visit, as he will lead a 100-member delegation.

Despite their apparent differences, Clinton and Khatami have many issues in common, including being under pressure from the conservative elements in their respective societies and having to deal with a legislature in the grip of the opposition party. While many foreign policy matters interest them, Afghanistan and the fate of the Taliban regime requires their urgent consultation and attention.

The Taliban provided safe haven for Mr. Osama bin Laden, the apparent mastermind of the bombing of US embassies on August 7 in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 263 people, including 12 Americans. The next day, the forces of Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, captured Mazar-i-Sharif headquarters of the northern alliance and, by some accounts, killed thousands of civilians from the Hazara ethnic minority, overran the Iranian consulate and reportedly killed at least 9 Iranians diplomats, and are holding many other Iranian nationals hostage.

The Taliban regime controls almost all of Afghanistan. With overt Saudi, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Pakistani backing and tacit U.S. approval, the Taliban have turned the country into a veritable garrison-state, where women have been relegated to the roles of incubators for the next generation of recruits and kitchen maids. The Saudi Arabian objective in assisting the creation of a Sunni Islamic ultra-orthodox state in Afghanistan is aimed at providing a counter-balance to Iran's Shiite brand of Islam and republican activism, which the conservative monarchies of the Persian Gulf do not appreciate. The UAE, in addition to being a monarchy and a Saudi proxy, benefits from Iran's preoccupation and friction with Afghanistan. The UAE continues to claim sovereignty over the Persian Gulf islands of Little Tonb, Great Tonb, and Abu Musa; the first two are under Iranian control and Abu Musa is shared by Iran and the UAE pursuant to a 1971 agreement. For Pakistan, the Taliban would secure Afghanistan as its satellite state, an acquisition commensurate with its recently acquired stature as a nuclear power. As a satellite, if not eventually and virtually annexed, Afghanistan would serve as a conduit for the Central Asian oil and gas exports through pipelines traversing Afghanistan to a terminal on the Pakistani coast on the Sea of Oman or Arabian Sea.

At the U.N., the two leaders should meet face-to-face, not necessarily as a gesture of mutual goodwill, itself a work in progress, but as a strategic necessity brought about by the Taliban in Afghanistan. They could agree to disagree on many issues, but they should not allow the disagreements to scuttle a common objective on Afghanistan. Behind-the-scenes, the two should unite their efforts against a common threat to regional peace, security and stability.

Iran's on-going war games on the Afghan border and apparent readiness to strike the Taliban is welcomed by Russia and the former Soviet Central Asian republics bordering Afghanistan. Russia does not wish to see the Taliban influence spreading to the Muslim areas in the Russian near-abroad, nor to see the Russian pipelines lose business to the planned Afghan pipeline carrying the Caspian and Central Asian oil and natural gas. Where Mr. Clinton can make a difference is in giving Iran, as Russia has, complete backing in dealing with the Taliban. In that connection, Mr. Clinton should continue with the U.S. efforts to keep Saddam Hussein boxed in Iraq, stand firm against any Pakistani effort to nuclearize the Iran-Afghan confrontation.

The two leaders should consider agreeing on the following agenda: First, Iran and the US should launch a joint diplomatic effort directed at getting the states sponsoring the Taliban regime and its military machine to back off -- this will cut Taliban's umbilical cord and eventually force it to moderate or perish. Second, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees should be called upon to oversee the repatriation of more than a million and a half Afghan refugees camped inside Iran to designated safe havens in Afghanistan, as well as to protect those on the verge of being expelled by the Taliban into neighboring Central Asian countries. Third, U.S. should join the coalition of Iran, Russia, and the Central Asian republics to engage the Taliban with an aim to change its ways and means. In this connection the coalition would appreciate US intelligence, financial, political, and materiel support, including the training and arming of thousands of Afghan exiles willing to return to fight off the Taliban. Forth, Iran and the U.S. should work with Russia, Azarbijan, and Afghanistan's northern neighbors, Turkmenistan, Uzbakistan, and Tajikistan, to produce a realistic plan for the export of the Caspian Sea oil and gas by most economical pipeline routes traversing Iran or Russia, thereby minimizing the promise of Afghanistan as a strategic prize. Once Afghanistan's necessity or value as a possible transit area for these intended pipelines diminishes, the fighting would subside, if not altogether cease, over its control.

A joint effort with Iran against the scourge of Talibanism would certainly improve U.S.'s badly tarnished image of lashing out against the Bin Laden camps in Afghanistan and the medicine plant in the Sudan. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the forces of moderation in Iran would also result in further isolation of the extremist and rejectionist elements in the Middle East, leading possibly to the revival of the Peace Process.

The authors respectively are a professor of engineering at the University of Southern California, and a professor of international law at Brandeis University. Their most recent articles on Iran have been published in the Los Angeles Times (December 10, 1997), the International Herald Tribune (December 13-14, 1997), and the Iran News (August 10, 1998 & May 16, 1995).