A full-fledged national debate emerged Monday on whether the United States should seek help from Iran in trying to defuse the crisis in Iraq.
Administration officials made it clear they would welcome diplomatic cooperation from Iran, even as they ruled out any joint military actions.
GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), the tightest of friends, took opposite positions, with McCain saying it would be folly to work with Iran and Graham saying the U.S. needed to “coordinate” with the Iranians.
The different views highlighted both the complexity of the crisis in Iraq, where sectarian war between Shiite and Sunni Muslims appeared to be breaking out, and rapidly changing alliances across the region.
Deputy Secretary of State William Burns could broach the subject of Iraq with Iranian officials this week during talks in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear program, a senior administration official said.
Secretary of State John Kerry gave the idea momentum Monday when he said, “Let’s see what Iran might or might not be willing to do.”
“I think we are open to any constructive process here that can minimize the violence, hold Iraq together, the integrity of the country and eliminate the presence of outside terrorist forces,” he told Yahoo News.
Other administration officials played down the idea of working with Iran.
They noted that the U.S. has worked with Iran in the past on other diplomatic issues where there were mutual interests, and emphasized that the U.S. would not coordinate military action.
“We’ve had similar conversations in the past with Iran regarding Afghanistan. These consultations would be along those lines. We’re not talking about coordinating any military action in Iraq with Iran,” State spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Iran has expressed support for the embattled government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Both governments are dominated by Shiite Muslims, and Iran is worried about extremist Sunni Muslims in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) taking over its next-door neighbor.
Iran’s worries were exacerbated by reports of atrocities over the weekend by the ISIS forces.
Psaki said the United States would encourage Iran to push the Iraqi government to find a way to address the conflict without resorting to sectarian militias.
The administration has sought to improve the U.S. relationship with Iraq, and President Obama in 2013 became the first U.S. leader to speak to Iran’s elected president since the Iranian hostage crisis that began in 1979.
Still, any U.S. cooperation with Iran has been politically toxic with Congress, where there is strong support in both parties for imposing tough economic sanctions on Tehran. The administration has had to work overtime to prevent the threat of new sanctions from being imposed as it works with Iran to conclude a nuclear deal.
McCain on Monday said it would be “the height of folly to believe that the Iranian regime can be our partner in managing the deteriorating security situation in Iraq.”
He argued that U.S. and Iranian goals do not align in Iraq and that greater intervention from Iran would only make the situation “dramatically worse.”
Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the senior Republican on the Armed Services panel, also weighed in strongly against working with Iran.
“Iran is very dangerous country that can’t be trusted,” said Donelle Harder, his spokeswoman. “If we work with Iran inside of Iraq, all we’re doing is giving them an excuse to be in the region. We’re legitimizing Iran’s presence there. The senator does not support working with Iran.”
Some supporters of Israel noted that Iran has repeatedly sought to increase its influence in Iraq, sometimes by arming Shiite militias.
The Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group, provided to reporters a timeline of Iran’s activities that it says have destabilized and promoted terrorism in Iraq.
It noted that in July of 2011, James Jeffrey, then the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, concluded Iran had a hand in providing advanced weapons such as rockets and sniper rifles to kill American soldiers.
Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that Iran has been a major source of instability in the region since it was linked to the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.
She said Iran helped give rise to ISIS in Syria by flooding arms and money when Syrian citizens attempted to initially remove dictator Bashar Assad through peaceful demonstrations.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Monday declined to comment on Kerry’s statement about exploring possible ways to work with Iran to stem violence in Iraq. A spokesman for the Israeli embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
Foreign policy experts said there are precedents for the United States coordinating militarily with Iran and speculated the administration could ramp up cooperation despite the risks.
Ken Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, noted that Iran provided coordination on covert efforts in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But he also warned the administration should be careful in wading into an agreement with Tehran.
“Obviously at one level we do have some interests in common: we don’t want to see Iraq fall into all-out civil war,” Pollack said. “But we should also remember we and the Iranians have some very important differences when it comes to Iraq as well.”
—Martin Matishak contributed reporting.