With little fanfare, another taboo in U.S.-Iran relations has shattered.

Jim Slattery, a former six-term Democratic Congressman from Kansas, late last year became the first former or current American legislator to visit the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In Tehran to attend a conference on countering violent extremism, Slattery encountered a largely friendly reception from both officials and ordinary Iranians and came back equipped to present a more realistic and upbeat depiction of Iranians than is usually found on Capitol Hill.

Speaking Monday at the Atlantic Council in Washington, Slattery conceded that there are elements in Iran that still oppose any reconciliation with the United States.

But a majority, in Slattery’s view, support efforts by the administration of President Hassan Rouhani to conclude a comprehensive nuclear deal with the U.S. and the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany that will ease economic sanctions against Iran and end its pariah status in return for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program. 

“We have a historic moment right now,” Slattery said, referring to intense negotiations that are approaching a new end of March deadline for a political framework accord. “The clock is ticking on both sides of the table.”

Iranians recognize need for deal

Contrary to the depiction of Iran by some in the U.S. and Israel, “the Iranians are rational,” Slattery said, and understand that possessing nuclear weapons would actually harm their strategic interests.

“They are smart, sophisticated people and they are good negotiators,” he said.  

Slattery has been meeting with Iranians for over a decade outside Iran as a participant in a so-called Abrahamic dialogue that brings Iranian Shiite Muslims together with American Christians and Jews. As luck would have it, some of his interlocutors now have prominent positions in the Rouhani administration, he said, including Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mohammad Nahavandian.

Slattery said he discovered other areas in common with top Iranian officials. On his first evening in Tehran, he had dinner with Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator, Majid Ravanchi, and found out that Ravanchi attended the University of Kansas at the same time that Slattery represented that district in Congress.

Arriving in Tehran, he was “blown away,” he said when the young man who took his passport told him, “ ‘I hope you guys can get this nuclear thing worked out so we can meet some American women.’ ”

Walking in the streets of Tehran, Slattery also encountered a friendly reception; he contrasted his feeling of security with his experience as an election monitor in Baghdad several years ago when he had to be surrounded by armed guards.

The anti-American slogans Iranians are obliged to chant on political holidays – like today’s anniversary of the 1979 revolution – have little to do with how most Iranians feel.

“One of the great problems we have to overcome [in the United States] is ignorance” of Iran,” Slattery said.

Slattery also met with members of the Iranian parliament who expressed concern about the impact of U.S. midterm elections on President Barack Obama’s ability to implement a nuclear deal.

The Iranian politicians, Slattery said, stressed that Iran was determined to retain what it regards as its right to the nuclear fuel cycle as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. At the same time, he said, “I also detected some flexibility” about the provisions of a deal with regard to the number and type of centrifuges and stockpile of low-enriched uranium Iran would be allowed to retain.

Slattery also commented on recent remarks by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that he is prepared to accept a nuclear deal that entails compromise.

Khamenei, speaking to Iranian air force personnel, said he would approve a “good deal” and that such an agreement “means that one side would not end up getting all it wants.”

The comments, Slattery said, are a “further indication that the Supreme Leader is blessing these negotiations and is guardedly optimistic that maybe something can be achieved” even if Khamenei remains skeptical of U.S. intentions toward Iran.

Israeli objections remain

Slattery also addressed the concerns of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has condemned any agreement that leaves Iran in possession of a uranium enrichment capacity.

Netanyahu’s acceptance of an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress on March 3 — two weeks before Israeli elections — has stirred up enormous controversy in both Israel and the U.S. and led a number of prominent Democrats – including Vice President Joe Biden – to say they will not attend a speech expected to focus on Netanyahu’s opposition to an Iran agreement.

Slattery said the Israeli leader had made a “mistake” in accepting the invitation from Congress. Responding to criticism by Netanyahu and others for negotiating with Iran, Slattery say that it is easy to be critical and hard to negotiate an agreement as complex as this one.

He quoted former U.S. President Harry Truman saying “any jackass can kick a barn down. It takes a carpenter to build one.” Slattery said he was not applying that epithet to Netanyahu.

Slattery also warned – as Iranian officials have done — that failure to reach an agreement while Rouhani is in office would likely result in the return of Iranian hardliners like former President Mahmoud “Ahmadinejad or even worse.” 

Now a partner in a Washington law firm, Slattery said he had not “made a dime” representing clients with interests in Iran and that his advocacy of rapprochement with Iran reflected his view that this was in the best interest of “my kids and my grandkids.”

Facing a larger challenge – in his view – from China, Slattery said, the U.S. cannot afford to “get sucked into” another war with another Muslim country.

“If we think we are a rich enough country to engage in more and more wars in the world of Islam while taking on the economic challenges of Asia … we are fools,” Slattery said. “We’ll wake up in 20 or 30 years and we’ll look like Britain in 1946.”

Note: Barbara Slavin moderated the discussion with Slattery on Monday.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Voice of America.

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

Related Experts: Barbara Slavin