WASHINGTON — As Republicans start to come out against the administration’s plans to consult with Iran on the crisis in Iraq, one prominent figure on the right is increasingly looking like an outlier: Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Graham’s call to work with Iran to address the situation in Iraq, which is under siege by the terrorist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has taken over major cities and is marching on Baghdad, stands in contrast to other Republicans who have spoken out on the issue — including Sen. John McCain, usually Graham’s ally on most foreign policy issues.
Appearing on one of the Sunday shows, Graham compared working with Iran on this issue to the Allies working with Stalin during World War II, presenting it as a necessary evil. “The Iranians can provide some assets to make sure Baghdad doesn’t fall. We need to coordinate with the Iranians,” Graham said. “And the Turks need to get in the game and get the Sunni Arabs back into the game, form a new government without [Iraqi Prime Minister] Maliki.”
That same day, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said the opposite, saying that working with Iran would be a “trap” and “a failure of leadership.”
The issue is forcing hawkish Republicans to make a tough choice on whether intervening in Iraq is important enough to enlist Iran’s help.
“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,” McCain said in a statement on Monday. “The reality is, U.S. and Iranian interests and goals do not align in Iraq, and greater Iranian intervention would only make the situation dramatically worse. It would inflame sectarian tensions, strengthen the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), drive more Sunnis into ISIS’s ranks, empower the most radical Shia militants, deepen the Iraqi government’s dependence on Iran, alienate U.S. allies and partners in the region, and set back the prospects of national reconciliation. For all of these reasons, and more, the United States should be seeking to minimize greater Iranian involvement in Iraq right now, not encouraging it.”
Neoconservative thinkers Frederick Kagan and Bill Kristol, writing in the Weekly Standard, called for the United States to send troops back to Iraq without any coordination with Iran.
“Throwing our weight behind Iran in the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq, as some are suggesting, would make things even worse,” Kagan and Kristol wrote. “Conducting U.S. airstrikes without deploying American special operators or other ground forces would in effect make the U.S. Iran’s air force. Such an approach would be extremely shortsighted.”
Many other Republicans are so far staying relatively mum on the administration’s plans; “I think like everybody else they’re trying to get a grip on it,” said one senior Republican operative. “This has all happened so quickly.”
“People are tired of Iraq but they also don’t fully understand the consequences of Iraq melting down,” the operative said.
Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a national security think tank that supports strong sanctions against Iran, said that Graham’s position was outside the mainstream on the Republican side.
“The Obama administration, which always has appeared too eager to bring Iran ‘into the fold,’ might view the current situation with [Iraq’s prime minister] Maliki as an opportunity to make common cause with Tehran,” Dubowitz said. “I doubt however most Republicans are going to fall for that delusion.”
“If the Obama administration tries to partner with them to prevent the fall of Baghdad, it is a delusion to think that this won’t significantly strengthen Iranian negotiating leverage over their nuclear program,” Dubowitz said, voicing the concern shared by some observers that working with Iran on the Iraq issue could take away U.S. leverage on the nuclear issue.
A senior administration official said on Monday on a call with reporters that there could be discussions between the United States and Iran about what to do about Iraq on the margins of this week’s round of nuclear talks in Vienna.
The official dismissed the idea that the Iraq issue could give Iran negotiating leverage on its nuclear program, comparing it with the Ukraine crisis, which has not affected Russia’s participation in the negotiations.
“We’re very focused on P5+1 as its own process,” the official said.
Graham’s is not the only surprising position on Iraq on the right; Sen. Rand Paul, who usually opposes most foreign entanglements, said in an interview with the Des Moines Register that he “would not rule out air strikes” on Iraq.
A spokesperson for Graham did not return requests for comment.