Ignorance: the Greatest Obstacle to Overcome in Reaching a Deal with Iran

Secretary Kerry Discusses Iranian Nuclear Program With Foreign Minister Zarif in Switzerland

As negotiations to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran hang in the balance, former Congressman from Kansas Jim Slattery sat down with Barbara Slavin, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, to discuss Slattery’s recent trip to Tehran and his perspective of the current negations with a focus on the person-to-person aspect of the U.S.-Iran relationship. His insights provide a valuable glimpse into the atmosphere on the ground in Iran at this critical time.

In the current negotiations between the U.S., its P5+1 allies (Russia, France, Britain, China and Germany) and Iran, many are focused on the technical specificities of a possible deal to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. While some dwell on the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to maintain or whether its breakout time (the time it would take for Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb) is six months or six years, ultimately the outcome of the negotiations is dependent on the negotiators themselves. However, the lack of trust and personal relationships between political influencers from the U.S. and Iran are an often overlooked aspect of the way the public perceives the current negotiations.

In December 2014, the former Congressman was invited to Iran for what was, according to Slattery, the first time an American lawmaker had been invited on such a trip since the 1979 Iranian revolution.  For the past ten years, Slattery has been involved in the Abrahamic dialogue, an initiative affiliated with Catholic University intended to promote communication between Christians and Muslims. “[Slattery], like Eisenhower, believe very strongly in people-to-people diplomacy; people getting to know each other and building relationships.”

Slattery advised that “one of the great problems we have to overcome right now is ignorance” adding, “it is amazing to me when I have conversations with members of Congress just how little they know about Iran.”

Breaking down the barrier of ignorance is vital to successful negotiations. How can lawmakers be expected to make objective decisions when many of them are uncomfortable with the idea of negotiating with Iran in the first place?

In a recent Senate Foreign Relations hearing on the Iran nuclear negotiations, Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., characterized Iran as “a country led by a person who wants there to be a cataclysmic showdown between the Muslim and non-Muslim world” adding that, “they reject everything that’s not Islamic in the world.” Understanding the Iranian people beyond many orientalist stereotypes fossilized in the average American’s (or average lawmaker’s) understanding of the Muslim world would, if anything, warm them up to the idea of the negotiating with Iran.

It is easy to be critical of the negotiations. It is much harder to negotiate a good deal. Mutual respect and understanding for the other side’s perspective is integral to the negotiating process.

Of course, travel between the countries has been, and remains difficult. Slattery hopes more opportunities for exchange will emerge, and in ways that would allow members of Congress to engage with their counterparts in the Iranian Parliament on a personal level.

“We have a historic moment right now”

On the topic of how the U.S.-Israel relationship might affect current talks, Slattery cautioned against letting domestic politics stifle the negotiations, stating that “we have a historic moment right now” to make a deal to ensure Iran does not get the bomb.

“If we got this deal on the nuclear question, it would reduce, hopefully, the anxiety and legitimate fear that many in Israel have about the prospect of a nuclear Iran,” said Slattery. He asserted that a stronger relationship between Iran and the U.S. could open doors to increased dialogue on regional issues such as Hezbollah or Hamas.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to address Congress in March at the request of Senator John Boehner, R-Ohio, who did not consult the White House before extending the invitation.  Netanyahu, who opposes the negotiations, will lobby Congress to increase sanctions on Iran. During Monday’s event at the Atlantic Council, Slattery posed a question for Netanyahu: “What happens if we fail?” Noting the “very dangerous consequences” of not seizing the opportunity to make a deal while it’s on the table.

Several members of Congress are undecided on whether or not they will attend the speech. Senator Dick Durban, D-Ill., said, “Colleagues of mine are very concerned about [the speech] and I’m troubled by it.” Adding, “It’s a serious mistake by the speaker and the prime minister.”

Angela Canterbury, Executive Director of the Council and Center, asked Slattery the million-dollar question: “I wanted to ask you about the effect you think the invitation to Bibi Netanyahu to come address the Congress is having, and, if you were in Congress today, would you attend?” Slattery responded, “If I had to decide today I would not attend the speech because I believe that his coming here at this time is showing disrespect to the office of the president,” suggesting that if Netanyahu will address Congress, perhaps an Iranian official, such as Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, should come testify before Congress, too.

Slattery ended with an open-ended question that epitomized the event: “Why are we afraid of information? Why are we afraid to talk to people and learn from them?”