The White House denied a report that it set up direct talks with Iran about its nuclear program, but that didn't halt a flurry of speculation Sunday.
Democrats said the talks, if they are happening, prove that sanctions supported by President Obama have worked; Republicans accused the Iranians of using the U.S. election to buy time for their nuclear weapons development.
Iran has agreed to directly negotiate with the U.S., but with the caveat that talks not take place until after the Nov. 6 presidential election, according to a weekend report by The New York Times. While Iranian officials cited uncertainty about the election as a reason for delaying talks, Sen. Lindsey Graham said that's just a "ploy" allowing them to use the election cycle "in a pretty clever way."
"I think the Iranians are trying to take advantage of our election cycle to continue to talk," the South Carolina Republican told Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday." "I think the time for talking is over, we should be demanding transparency and access to their nuclear program."
With the presidential election just 15 days away, there's little the White House does that isn't being viewed through a political lens — and that's especially true when it comes to foreign policy, with GOP candidate Mitt Romney and other Republicans criticizing how Mr. Obama has handled touchy situations in countries like Iran, Libya and Afghanistan.
And as Iran took the spotlight over the weekend, both campaigns were in a heightened state of sensitivity over foreign policy issues, with both candidates preparing to debate that topic in their third and final debate on Monday night.
The White House moved quickly Saturday to knock down the story.
"It's not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement, adding that the U.S. has said "from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally."
"The president has made clear that he will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and we will do what we must to achieve that," Mr. Vietor said. "It has always been our goal for sanctions to pressure Iran to come in line with its obligations. The onus is on the Iranians to do so, otherwise they will continue to face crippling sanctions and increased pressure."
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff, on ABC's "This Week" credited Mr. Obama's sanctions-based approach for putting Iran's economy "on its knees."
And Richard J. Durbin, the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, pointed to the plummeting value of Iran's currency, the rial, which lost nearly 40 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar in early October. It has since regained some of its value, but Mr. Durbin said the fluctuation is evidence that Iran is feeling strong pressure to suspend its weapons program.
"This is a clear indication that the sanctions regime President Obama has put together with Israel and other countries is putting pressure on Iran to sit down and finally acknowledge they cannot have a nuclear weapon," he said on "Fox News Sunday."
Even as they denied agreeing to direct negotiations — contrary to The New York Times report — White House officials still expressed willingness to sit down with Iran if that will stem its pursuit of nuclear weapons. But Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, said doing so could "jettison" allies of the U.S. who pushed harder for sanctions originally.
"The last thing we would want to do is abandon our allies in this and make it a one-on-one negotiation," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "Some of our allies have been more forward-leaning than we have been in putting sanctions in place."
And while Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was more hesitant to weigh in than his Republican colleagues — pointing to the denials by the White House of direct talks — he said he's still worried that Iran has pulled tactics in the past to delay consequences for its nuclear activities.
"I have concerns that Iran has used negotiations in the past as a way to buy time on their nuclear program," he said on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation."
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