Netanyahu urges U.S. not to work with Iran to stabilize Iraq

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday the United States should try to weaken both Iran and the Sunni Muslim insurgents driving toward Baghdad, urging the Obama administration not to work with Tehran to help stabilize Iraq.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem June 22, 2014. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

“What you’re seeing in the Middle East today in Iraq and in Syria is the stark hatreds between radical Shi’ites, in this case led by Iran, and radical Sunnis led by al Qaeda and ISIS and others,” Netanyahu told the NBC program “Meet the Press,” referring to the group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

“Now, both of these camps are enemies of the United States. And when your enemies are fighting each other, don’t strengthen either one of them. Weaken both,” Netanyahu added.

Netanyahu, known for a strained relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama, has described as a “historic mistake” the interim agreement that the United States and other world powers reached with Iran in November on curbing some aspects of its nuclear program in return for a limited easing of sanctions imposed on Tehran.

Referring to the crisis in Iran’s neighbor Iraq, Netanyahu said, “I think by far the worst outcome that could come out of this is that one of these factions, Iran, would come out with nuclear weapons capability. That would be a tragic mistake. ... It would make everything else pale in comparison.”

Obama on Thursday said Iran can play a constructive role in Iraq if it follows the U.S. lead in pressing for all sides within Iraq to be respected, adding that the United States had pressed Iran not to encourage steps that would lead to civil war within Iraq.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused the United States on Sunday of trying to retake control of Iraq by exploiting sectarian rivalries. He did not mention the Iranian president’s recent suggestion of cooperation with Tehran’s old U.S. adversary in defense of their mutual ally in Baghdad. [ID:nL6N0P30FZ]

Netanyahu calls Iran’s nuclear program the biggest threat to global security. Iran denies it is seeking the capability to make a nuclear bomb.

The United States said last week it is unclear whether Iran is ready to take the steps necessary to assure the world its nuclear ambitions are entirely peaceful as a July 20 deadline approaches in the six-party talks. [ID:nL6N0P14EJ]

Netanyahu said that “I hope they don’t come up with a bad deal” in the nuclear talks.

“What is, I think, being discussed in the case of Iran by the international community is that you remove most of the sanctions and Iran gets to keep most of the capabilities, most of the stockpiles, most of the ability to manufacture the means to make nuclear weapons,” the hawkish Israeli leader said. “... This would change history. It would be a monumental mistake.”

Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Jim Loney and Eric Walsh