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February 11, 2015

First Former Congressman to Visit Tehran Since ’79 Warns Against Sanctions

Rep. Jim Slattery

Washington, DC – “I left all of these conversations in Tehran…with a firm belief that the Rouhani government really wants to get this right with the United States. They want an agreement with the United States on the nuclear question,” said former Representative Jim Slattery (D-KS), speaking at the Atlantic Council this week.

Slattery, who became the first U.S. Congressman to visit Iran since 1979 late last year, warned that the threat of Congress passing new sanctions has been counterproductive and undermined chances for a comprehensive accord. The Iranian officials he spoke with were deeply concerned about Congress’ opposition to a nuclear deal. Further, the threat of new Congressional sanctions had prevented Iran from putting its best offer on the table, according to the former Congressman. The Iranians “need assurances that if there is a deal that is worked out, they want to be confident that it can actually be approved and implemented by the Obama administration, and won’t be scuttled by the Congress,” observed Slattery.  Putting forward their best offer, only to have Congress reject it, would be a “political disaster.” 

On sanctions, Slattery noted that he has been advising his contacts in Congress to avoid supporting additional sanctions at this time. “I think that’s counterproductive, I don’t think it will accomplish anything, I think it risks blowing up the negotiations,” he observed, adding that the conventional wisdom regarding the track record of Iran sanctions must be questioned. “When sanctions went into place there were about 200 centrifuges spinning in Iran,” he said. “By their own admission today, there are 20,000 centrifuges online in Iran. Now, did sanctions work? You tell me.” 

While Congressional support for an agreement would be ideal, Slattery suggested political realities might hinder such a possibility. “Unfortunately, that may not be possible for domestic political reasons, and if that is the case, then that’s a sad commentary on the United States.”   

He also addressed the controversial decision of House Speaker John Boehner to invite Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on Iran, without the knowledge of the Obama administration, calling it a mistake. “I’m afraid it’s not going to be beneficial for Israel, and it’s not going to be beneficial for the United States. 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.”  Slattery compared Boehner’s invitation to  efforts in 1951 by a GOP-led Congress to invite General Douglas McArthur to address a joint session after President Truman had dismissed him for insubordination.

Another issue  raised by Slattery was that Netanyahu and others appear to be opposing a diplomatic agreement that has not even yet materialized. “We should not prejudge this, and this is a thing that is very troubling to me, when I read Mr. Netanyahu’s statements from yesterday, there’s this sort of prejudging of the deal,” he argued.  “There isn’t a deal yet, and yet he’s saying that ‘I will do everything I can to prevent this deal from being approved.’ I mean, really? Let’s wait until we see the deal, and then we can talk about what the options are.” 

Beyond the nuclear talks and the debates in Washington, Slattery urged that there need to be more exchanges between the U.S. and Iran. “Whether they are academic or religious, faith-based, anything we can do to encourage dialogue between the United States and Iran I think is beneficial for both sides,” the Congressman opined. “Our greatest enemy in this process may very well be ignorance.”  

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