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US Lawmakers Clash on Iran Talks

  • Michael Bowman

Democratic Senator Richard Durbin (file photo)

Democratic Senator Richard Durbin (file photo)

WASHINGTON – U.S. lawmakers disagree on the utility of direct American negotiations with Iran over the country’s nuclear program. Democratic and Republican legislators spoke amid denials from both the Obama administration and Tehran that the two sides have agreed to one-on-one talks.

President Barack Obama has long-maintained that he is open to dialogue with America’s adversaries, including Iran. Saturday, The New York Times reported that U.S. and Iranian officials have agreed in principle to direct bilateral talks on Iran’s hotly-contested nuclear program.

Hours later, a U.S. National Security Council spokesman denied any such agreement exists. Sunday, Iran’s foreign minister said there are no discussions or negotiations with the United States.

Neither government is ruling out the possibility of one-on-one talks, but at least for now, both say they are working within the so-called “P5-plus-one” group comprising the permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany.

Appearing on the U.S. television program Fox News Sunday, Democratic Senator Richard Durbin said negotiations that result in Iran’s abandonment of its suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons would be a positive step forward.

“If direct negotiations are a path toward a peaceful resolution with Iran giving up on the notion of a nuclear weapon, [then] pursue it. If meeting collectively is better, pursue that as well. But as Nicholas Burns said, who was the negotiator for President George W. Bush in Tehran, it would be unconscionable for us not to meet and talk. We do not want to drive into that brick wall of war in 2013 without sitting down and speaking to the Iranians,” said Durbin.

Disputing that assertion was Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who suggested Iran only enters into dialogue to buy more time for nuclear weapons development.

“During the four years we have talked to them, they have quadrupled the amount of 20-percent enriched uranium to produce a bomb. There is a pattern here. We talk, they enrich. It needs to stop. We need to have red lines coordinated with Israel, and end this before it gets out of hand,” said Graham.

“Red lines” refer to points of weapons capability that, if crossed, would trigger military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says such lines are needed to convince Iran of the international community’s resolve. Many Republican lawmakers have endorsed the concept. The Obama administration does not rule out military action against Iran, but declines to say precisely what stage of Iranian nuclear development would trigger it.

President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, says the administration’s Iran policy is working.

“Because of the steady leadership and the president’s course in building a coalition, and forcing now a set of sanctions [on Iran] that Europe would never have considered three and a half years ago, Iran’s economy is on its knees.”

Emanuel spoke on ABC’s This Week program.

Iran is likely to be a focus of Monday’s final debate between Obama and his Republican challenger, former Governor Mitt Romney. Last month’s deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, is also sure to be a point of contention in the debate, which is devoted to foreign policy issues.