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U.S. Congress Divided Over Working With Iran

U.S. President Barack Obama
WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama will meet with congressional leaders on June 18 at the White House to discuss the situation in Iraq, with senators divided on whether to work with Iran to resolve the crisis.

Obama will meet with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Democrat-Nevada), Speaker of the House John Boehner (Republican-Ohio), and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Democrat-California). The party leaders will then report back to their members about the administration's plan for Iraq.

In recent days, Iraqi security forces have been battling Sunni-led militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as the insurgents sought to push toward the capital, Baghdad.

Scores have been killed in the fighting and ISIL insurgents have taken over Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, and Tikrit, north of Baghdad.

Republican senators, speaking on June 17, were split over whether to talk with Iran about Iraq. Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina) backed it, while it was anathema to others.

"The Iranians have influence in Iraq. That influence could be used to our benefit. That doesn't mean we're allies," Graham said to reporters in the U.S. Capitol.

Graham, a harsh critic of the U.S. president on foreign policy and a hawk on Iran, said that if Obama decided "a dialogue with the Iranians...will help our interest and protect our people" he should "do it."

"It is about people who are in harm's way," he said.

New Divisions

Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona) disagreed. "Not the people who sent in IEDs that killed Americans. Absolutely not. These are the enemy."

Senator Mark Kirk (Republican-Illinois) concurred. "No. The moment you start a negotiation with the Iranians they're going to ask you to sign off [on] their nuclear bomb program," he told RFE/RL.

Senator James Inhofe (Republican-Oklahoma), asked about talks by RFE/RL, simply said "No."

The Republican Party is often unified over the issue of Iran. A bill to impose additional sanctions on Iran currently on ice during interim negotiations has the support of 43 of 45 members of the party. As Graham said, he and McCain "agree on 99 percent of stuff."

Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Corker (Republican-Tennessee) was wary over talking with Iran, but did not rule it out.

“I am highly skeptical of Iran’s ability to play a stabilizing role in Iraq, and while I don’t think we should dismiss any options out of hand to address this crisis, we must be extremely wary of working with a leading state sponsor of terrorism that is responsible for the deaths of Americans in Iraq," he said in a statement to RFE/RL.

The United States and Iran had an initial meeting over the crisis in Iraq on June 16 during nuclear talks in Vienna, according to the State Department.

Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on June 17 that the U.S. was " open to continuing our engagement with the Iranians, just as we are engaging with other regional players on the threat posed by ISIL in Iraq."

She added, "It is likely those discussions would happen at a lower level and we don't expect further conversations with Iran on this issue in Vienna."

Top Democrats, meanwhile, cautiously endorsed engagement with Iran.

"I think we should talk to all of our allies in the region and talking to Iran is not inherently a bad idea. But I'm very suspicious of, and concerned about Iranian intentions in the region," Senator Chris Coons (Democrat-Delaware) told RFE/RL.

"I think Iran could be helpful if Iran chose to be helpful," Senator Dianne Feinstein (Democrat-California) told reporters.