The Obama administration signaled increasing openness Monday to an alliance with Iran to combat al Qaeda-inspired militants in Iraq, despite State Department counterterrorism documents accusing Tehran of undermining security in the region and tolerating a flow of cash and fighters to al Qaeda in Syria.
The administration made its dramatic policy turn as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant laid siege to another northern Iraqi city Monday, sending thousands of residents fleeing and giving ISIL control of a vast swath of territory from the Tigris River in central Iraq all the way across the Syrian border.
Early Monday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry suggested that Washington would be open to some form of military-to-military coordination with the Shiite Muslim government in Iran, which borders Iraq to the west, to contain the advance by ISIL — a Sunni group that has seized Iraqi cities nearly as far south as Baghdad in 10 days.
Although Mr. Kerry did not offer details, the Pentagon has surveillance drones flying over Iraq. There was speculation that intelligence from their missions may be shared with the Iranian-backed militias loyal to Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
The Obama administration announced over the weekend that it sent the U.S. aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, as well as a guided-missile destroyer and a guided-missile cruiser, to the Persian Gulf in response to the crisis.
Questions were raised Monday about whether Mr. Kerry spoke before the White House made an official decision on coordinating with Iran. By Monday afternoon, several administration officials were downplaying the secretary’s remarks, which he made during a live Internet interview with Yahoo News.
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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made headlines over the weekend by saying the Islamic republic was “ready to help” in Iraq. He said that if Washington moved against ISIL, Iran could “think about cooperation,” but the U.S. had made no specific request.
Asked specifically Monday whether there was potential for cooperating with Iran militarily, Mr. Kerry said, “We need to go step by step and see what, in fact, might be a reality. But I wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive to providing real stability.”
At the Pentagon and the State Department, officials said the idea of serious military-to-military coordination with Iran was not on the table. But they did say a possible goal for Washington may involve an alliance with Tehran similar to one from the months immediately after 9/11 — when the two longtime enemies shared intelligence to take down the Taliban, a common enemy in Afghanistan.
State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said that despite strong U.S. concerns about terrorist activity backed in the region by Iran, “this is a case where we’re open to a discussion, because we’ve done that in the past when it came to Afghanistan.”
That openness, which Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said could advance with discussions this week on the sidelines of U.S.-Iranian nuclear talks in Vienna, suggested that the administration may be scrambling to exert influence over the Iraqi security meltdown.
Iraq is wedged between the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran and the Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and a growing number of analysts say the situation is teetering on the edge of an all-out sectarian war pitting the region’s two main Muslim powers against each other.
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With such fears as a backdrop, there are also concerns about how a suddenly deepened U.S.-Iranian relationship will be received by Washington’s closest allies in the region: Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both nations view Iran as a threat and may be pushed toward making their own unpredictable moves in response to expanded U.S.-Iranian cooperation.
Some observers countered that speculation Monday, arguing that the wider adversarial relationship between Washington and Tehran is unlikely to seriously change.
“It’s not as if the U.S. is going to become softer toward Iran on other issues such as the nuclear situation just because they have some coordination in response to ISIL,” said Trita Parsi, who heads the U.S.-based National Iranian American Council, which promotes diplomacy between Washington and Tehran.
“Whatever they do, it’s going to be insignificant in comparison with the coordination that the George W. Bush administration had with Iran against the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks,” he said.
Iraqi security officials, meanwhile, said the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, was already inside Iraq to consult with officials on how to roll back ISIL’s charge.
The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity with The Associated Press, said the U.S. government was notified in advance of Gen. Soleimani’s visit.
As Mr. Kerry made his remarks Monday, unmanned U.S. aircraft flew reconnaissance missions over Iraq, reportedly to gather intelligence on ISIL positions.
A senior Pentagon official told The Washington Times that the Obama administration was debating whether to arm the drones.
The task of weaponizing the aircraft is more complicated than most people imagine, said the official, who added that challenges also are associated with “finding targets that are appropriate or that will help accomplish the goal of breaking the momentum” of ISIL.
“ISIL doesn’t have bridges. They don’t have fixed command-and-control structures. They don’t have major strategic weapons systems, like integrated defense,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of secrecy surrounding the drone program.
Gen. Soleimani has been inspecting Iraqi defenses and reviewing plans with top commanders and Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias, the officials said.
He also visited the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala south of Baghdad, home to the most revered Shiite shrines, and areas west of Baghdad where government forces have faced off with Islamist militants for months.
Gen. Soleimani is one of the most powerful figures in Iran’s security establishment. His Quds Force is a secretive branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard involved in external operations. In the mid-2000s, it organized Shiite militias in a campaign of deadly violence against U.S. troops in Iraq, American officials said.
More recently, the Quds Force has been involved in helping Syrian President Bashar Assad carry out a bloody military campaign against opposition forces in that nation, some of them more Western-inclined and others Sunni Islamists such as ISIL.
Sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity with The Times, have argued that Iran has quietly tolerated ISIL’s rise in the region because the group’s presence in Syria has helped legitimize the Assad government’s claim to “fighting terrorists” rather than squashing an Arab Spring-style pro-democracy movement.
The State Department bolstered such arguments in April when it released its annual report on the state of terrorism worldwide.
The document, which listed Iran as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” asserted that Tehran has allowed al Qaeda “facilitators Muhsin al-Fadhli and Adel Radi Saqr al-Wahabi al-Harbi to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and also to Syria.”
The report also asserted that Iranian actors are inflaming sectarian tensions inside Iraq. “Despite its pledge to support Iraq’s stabilization, Iran trained, funded, and provided guidance to Iraqi [Shiite] militant groups,” the document stated.
Asked about the report Monday, Ms. Psaki said U.S. officials stand by the document but “the responsible diplomatic approach includes evaluating circumstances as they come up every day, every week, every month.”
• Maggie Ybarra contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
• Guy Taylor can be reached at email@example.com.
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