Jim Slattery, a former congressman from Kansas, made a rare visit to Tehran last month in which he addressed a conference on extremism and held discussions with Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rohani’s chief of staff, Mohammad Nahavandia. Slattery told RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari that his visit left him guardedly optimistic about the prospects of a nuclear deal with Iran.
RFE/RL: You are one of the only former or current U.S. politicians to visit Iran since the 1979 Revolution. How did your visit come about?
Jim Slattery: Well, I have been participating in what we call an Abrahamic dialogue [Editor's note: Abraham seen as a prominent figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam] with Iranians over the last 10 years, and it’s been a sort of a second track diplomatic outreach to Iran. It has been a forum where Iranians and prominent Christians, Muslims, and Jews from the United States could engage our Iranian friends on a faith-based conversation. I believe that my participation in that dialogue over a 10-year period, perhaps, was one of the reasons why I was invited to speak in Tehran at the World Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE) conference.
RFE/RL: Following your discussions in Iran -- you met with Foreign Minister Zarif, his deputy, Rohani’s chief of staff, and lawmakers -- you’ve expressed optimism that a nuclear deal is achievable. What makes you think Iran is ready to make the needed concessions for a deal to happen?
Slattery: Well, I based my optimism, guarded optimism, on the conversations that I had with Iranian government officials and the fact that I believe that President [Barack] Obama and his administration are looking for an agreement on Iran as well. They have invested a lot of time in trying to engage Iran in a constructive way to achieve an agreement that would have the effect of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
I think leaders on both sides would like to improve the relationship between the United States and Iran, and where there is a will, there’s generally a way. I think that’s where we are right now. So I am guardedly optimistic. I’m not naive, I know that this is going to be enormously complicated, but we have an obligation to pursue diplomatic solutions to these kind of very difficult problems before we engage in some kind of military action. So I think it’s very important for us to find a diplomatic solution to this issue and do so with mutual respect.
RFE/RL: Some of your colleagues have expressed skepticism over the nuclear talks with Iran. They have said that Iran is only trying to buy time. What is your reaction to such views?
Slattery: Since the discussions began with Iran, the Iranians have ceased lot of their activities and they have not been going forward with enrichment expansion. I think that the Iranians have kept their end of the bargain since these negotiations started. I’m aware that many Americans are very skeptical about what the Iranians are ultimately willing to do in this area. But I believe we should explore those options; we should find out what is possible in the diplomatic arena and what are we afraid of. As President [John F.] Kennedy used to say, we should never fear to negotiate. But we should never negotiate out of fear.
I also happen to believe that President [Ronald] Reagan was right when he would say: "trust, but verify." So, as we proceed with these negotiations with Iran, clearly we need to try and build some relationships that will, hopefully, enable trust to emerge and, at the same time, both sides need to have assurances that the agreements are being honored and kept.
RFE/RL: In your discussions with Iranian officials, did you bring up the issue of human rights violations in the country?
Slattery: Yes, I’m troubled by human rights violations, not only in Iran, but in the entire region. There are human rights violations occurring in Saudi Arabia.
RFE/RL: Yes, that’s correct. But we’re discussing your trip to Iran, a country that is known for brutally repressing its opposition movement, a country where currently at least two U.S. citizens are being held, including a reporter with The Washington Post. Was his detention, the detention of Jason Rezaian, something you discussed with Iranian officials?
Slattery: I was not asked to discuss that question with Iranian officials, and I did not want to personally interfere in the conversations that were going on around that issue. But I did suggest that this is a matter that should be addressed and I urged folks in Iran to release the journalist.
I think that the Iranians have made a terrible mistake by arresting him and apprehending him. But I believe that these kind of issues can be best addressed in the context of discussions and negotiations. That’s what I favor. And to try and say we’re not going to talk to people in the world until they agree to all of our positions, I think that has not worked well.