Lawmakers wary of Obama meeting with Iranian president (video)

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Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are expressing misgivings about President Obama's potential meeting with Iran's new president on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly in New York next week.

The White House said Friday that the president was “ready to engage” with Rouhani, further adding to the speculation that the two could meet face-to-face in what would be the first such encounter since the two countries broke off diplomatic ties in 1980. Several lawmakers believe such a meeting would be a mistake, empowering Iran before it has made any real concessions on its alleged nuclear weapons program.

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Hawkish Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Middle East panel, called it a “terrible idea.”

“Rouhani,” she told The Hill, “is the master of disguise. He knows how to do the charm offensive on the U.S. and is charming the snakes coming out of the basket with his sweet tune of reconciliation and love of the Jews. And it's working. I miss [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad; he was so 'what you see is what you get.' ”

Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), another top member of the committee, said he was “very wary of meeting with [Rouhani] at this time.” He drew parallels with Burma, which Obama visited last year but remains plagued with ethnic strife and military repression.

“They've already consumed the carrots, and we really haven't seen any real benefit,” Chabot said. “I think there's sometimes a temptation by administrations to think that something positive is happening somewhere else in the world and to try to take credit for it. I think that's sort of what we've seen in Burma, and that may be what we see happening in Iran.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (Calif.), a senior Democrat on the panel, called meetings with the president of the United States “a tremendous gift that should not be given away for a wink and a promise.”

“We can't stop somebody from walking by us in a hallway,” he said. “But a sit-down meeting in New York should not be given away for free.”

And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a lead advocate for intervention in Syria, raised issue with Iran's continued support for Bashar Assad.

“I think there's many other ways to start negotiations,” he said. “This is a country that's sending in Revolutionary Guards and planeloads of weapons into Syria.”

Others however feel the time is ripe. Rouhani has made multiple overtures to the Obama administration ahead of the U.N. General Assembly, releasing political prisoners and penning a Washington Post op-ed in which he called for “constructive interaction” with the U.S.

“As a nation we should be taking advantage of the decision of the Iranian people to elect President Rouhani,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations panel on the Near East. “I think they sent a pretty clear message and we should be testing the sincerity of President Rouhani's desire to re-engage. Who does the meetings – that's for the executive branch to decide.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), another member of the panel, said it's “important to send Rouhani a sign that we welcome a new, moderate regime.”

“At some point we need to recognize that there's probably some good that can come from talking,” he told The Hill. “I have thought for a long time that it's silly that we believe we're punishing Iran by ignoring them.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the House foreign affairs panel, said Obama was the right candidate for the Iranians to seek a deal since he promised in the 2008 campaign to meet without preconditions.

“The United States should always be open to changing circumstances and changing leadership and be prepared to respond,” he said. “Absolute, closed, 'we-don't-care-we're-not-going-to-talk-to-you' policies, have rarely worked in our favor.”

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.), the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, agreed.

“I think what's happening in Iran is you have a president who sees how bad the economy is, the sanctions are working,” he said. “You take advantage of the time when it's presented to you. It depends on the facts and circumstances.”

So did Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

“That's the sort of decision only a president can make,” Levin said. “I wouldn't object to it, let me put it that way.”

Others didn't rule out such a high-level meeting but urged Obama to remain wary. The White House says it remains committed to preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, by force if necessary.

“I think it's always good [to talk] but [Obama] has to be very clear, precise – no muddle, no imprecise or misleading rhetoric,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), a leading human-rights advocate in Congress. “He's not his predecessor, Ahmadinejad, so there's always hope but he can't go in there thinking that force of personality or a big smile is going to move the ball. Because it's not.”

Jewish Democrats are particularly cautious. Israel views a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat.

“I think talking is always a good idea,” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said. “But I think we need to carry a big stick. The president ought to make it very clear that we are still on the same trajectory unless they actually change their efforts to develop a nuclear bomb. We are still going to be prepared to take military measures to stop it.”

He said talking can be part of the administration's pressure tactic.

“Increase the sanctions, increase the pressure and hope there can be a diplomatic solution,” Waxman said. “But you can't get to a diplomatic solution without talking.”