Iranian Negotiations - Common Sense Perspective from the American Heartland

04/03/2015 08:45 am ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015
Lawrence A. Levine

With the announcement of the framework for a nuclear deal with Iran the debate here in the United States on the advantages and disadvantages of a deal can begin in earnest.

Posturing politicians at both ends of the political spectrum, seeking advantage in the 2016 election season, will pander to partisan constituencies and deep-pocket donors. But as the debate begins, a quite voice from the American Heartland deserves to be heard above the Sturm und Drang of the political fray.

Jim Slattery, a self-described farm boy from Atchison County, Kansas, deep in the American Heartland, served six terms in the US Congress. He exudes a calm demeanor and common-sense straight talk on this issue oddly out of place with more strident rhetoric.

In speaking about Iran he holds a distinction no current official in the US government can claim -- he's actually traveled to Iran, met with and spoken to Iranians in their homeland, and has relationships with several senior official in the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

"You make peace with your enemies. You don't necessarily make peace with your friends.... And the only way you make peace with your enemies is to talk with them," he said, In words sounding more like the Gospels than the thinly-concealed vitriol and defense of doctrine and dogma that masquerades as religious freedom these days.

Cardinal Theodore McCormick, the Cardinal Emeritus of Washington DC, and Douglas Coe, selected by Time Magazine in 2005 as one of America's 25 most influential evangelicals, invited Slattery to join in the interfaith dialogue about 10 years ago.

Over the past decade, Slattery has participated in interfaith dialogue on topics as diverse as Business Ethics and Just War Theory to the theology of the End Times. Noting that both America and Iran are nations that take their Faith very seriously, Slattery said that there are millions of people around the world who believe we may be in what scripture describes as the End Times.

Educated as a lawyer at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, he told an audience at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics on the campus of the University of Kansas last month that "one of the first things you do in a dispute, whether it's a lawsuit or a negotiation, is... attempt to learn everything you can about the guy across the table from you. You want to learn what their deepest fears are, what their deepest needs are, what their dreams are, and their deepest aspirations... You want to get to know them."

Lamenting a bygone era of bipartisanship based on respectful dialogue rather than partisan diatribe in Washington DC, Slattery lauded Senator Bob Dole as a man who mastered the "art" of finding common ground, with the ability to craft "win/win" solutions to vexing legislature problems.

Though warning that rapprochement with Iran may not be possible, he said he's been telling friends in Washington that over the next five or six months, nothing is more important than trying to get this relationship right. The election of the Iranian cleric, legislator, and diplomat Rouhani, who earned a doctorate in Constitutional Law at a Scottish university, was a historic event.

"We don't know for sure, but he (Rouhani) may be a Gorbachev type leader -- a transformational leader," said Slattery. If he is, "we need to position ourselves so we can respond appropriately."

He supported his cautious optimism with facts not typically reported in discussions about Iran. The literacy rate in Iran, he said, is about 90% for everyone under 50 years old. And unlike many Arab and other Muslim nations, woman are among the most educated Iranians. "In every country around the world, when you educate women, profound things happen." About "60% of all university students are female, 55% of graduate students are female," he said.

Despite his cautious optimism, he pragmatically warned that the next several weeks of negotiations will be "very difficult" and then proceeded to describe the competing national interests of the multiple nations involved.

Russia, he said, has political and economic reasons to oppose an agreement. As a petro-state whose "whole economy is tied to the price of global oil," Russia wants to keep oil prices high so they can fund their simmering war in the Ukraine and use of oil to influence politics in Europe.

An agreement would invite investment in Iranian oil and natural gas. This would allow an expansion of their production which could reduce global energy prices and break the Russian monopoly on the supply of natural gas to Western Europe. "I'm very worried about (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and where he is going," he said, "He wants us distracted in the Middle East. He wants to see the United States get sucked into as many wars in the world of Islam as possible," and does not want Iran's energy in the global market place.

China too, he said, has economic and political reasons to oppose an agreement. The effect of 35 years of US policy towards Iran has had the effect of pushing Iranian oil supplies into "the hands of the Chinese." Though China likes this, the Iranians do not, "because it limits their options," suggesting Iran understands the advantages that can come from restoring economic relationships and commerce with the West.

"The Persians identify with the Europeans and the Americans more easily than they identify with the Chinese," he explained. "They want a future with the west, and not with the Chinese. But our activity is sort of pushing them in the direction of the Chinese."

But, he cautioned, there are those in Iran who profit from the sanctions. Though he did not describe them as such, forces akin to organized criminals can profit through smuggling and the artificially high prices that can be charged for scarce goods. This internal Iranian force also has economic incentive to oppose or sabotage any agreement.

Slattery left unstated that there are also American and other investors with a stake in oil and natural gas who might also have reason to politically oppose the agreement, sharing with Russia an economic interest in keeping oil prices high and restricting Iranian oil and natural gas from entering the global free market.

Though not directly stating, Slattery suggested that access to the free market must come with adherence to the the rule of law that underlies the international system put in place after the defeat of authoritarian tyranny at the end of World War II. He acknowledged Israel's legitimate concerns about Iran, who like Russia, has shown a willingness to use military and political clout to seek an aggressive expansion of their power and influence in their respective regions.

Based on his first-hand experience and relationships with Iranians over the past decade, he suggested that there are those in Iran who oppose the agenda of hard-liners. Iran, he says, has adhered to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and seeks to exercise their legal rights to enrich uranium to produce nuclear energy. And may be willing to make "major concessions."

The real question at issue in the negations -- aside from Iran signaling a willingness to eschew terrorism and military aggression against neighboring states -- is how best to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.

Nuclear power, he said, requires uranium enriched to 5%. Weapon's grade uranium must be enriched to "north of 90-95%." Despite a decade of sanctions, Iran has been able to increase their number of centrifuges enriching uranium from 150 to 9,000 and during this time has gone from enriching uranium from 5% to 20%. When the dust settles, they may be willing to agree to limit their enriched uranium to the quantity needed for civilian nuclear energy, and to limit the number of centrifuges to the number needed to produce that quantity of uranium.

Trust becomes the key issue. Though not addressed by Slattery, the question of whether the US can verify adherence to any negotiated settlement or if Iran could maintain a covert capability able to circumvent an agreement remain. CIA Director John Brennan has indicated the US has the capability to monitor Iranian nuclear development with or without an agreement.

But to the farm boy from the American Heartland, the need to exhaust all options short of war, and to engage in negotiations, to seek to make peace with enemies, stems from a moral obligation.

"I don't know where these negotiations will take us in the next few days or next few months," he said, but the United States must always "exhaust diplomatic options before we resort to any kind of military conflict."

Top photo: Former Kansas Congressman James "Jim" Slattery at the Robert J. Dole Center for Politics on the campus of the University of Kansas speaking about Iran on 30 March 2015.