WASHINGTON – Reflecting rapidly changing events on the ground in the Middle East, the US is readying a direct line of communication with Iran that would allow the two powers to coordinate strategy against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a terrorist militia conquering territory throughout eastern Syria and northern Iraq.
As the Pentagon prepared military options over the weekend for US President Barack Obama against ISIS targets in Iraqi territory, the State Department explored a channel with Iran separate and apart from its diplomatic effort with the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that the US is “open to discussions” with the Iranians over ISIS “if there is something constructive that can be contributed by Iran,” and “if Iran is prepared to do something that is going to respect the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq.”
Over the weekend, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Iran stands “ready to help” in coordination with the US in Iraq.
But the White House and Pentagon made clear on Monday that diplomacy with Iran over the delicacies of renewed engagement with its embattled neighbor will steer clear from cooperation on an operational level.
“There is absolutely no intention and no plan to coordinate military activity between the United States and Iran,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said on Monday.
“There are no plans to have consultations with Iran about military activities in Iraq.”
Speaking to journalists from Air Force One, Josh Earnest, incoming White House press secretary, echoed Kirby and noted that bilateral talks might take place on the sidelines of the nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria, under way this week.
A senior Obama administration official, taking questions from reporters intent on discussing the nuclear negotiations, rejected the notion that ISIS would be a focal point in Vienna, where talks are intensifying over a possible comprehensive nuclear agreement. Kerry said on Saturday that the US administration would go to lengths to ensure the talks are not “linked and mixed.”
Nevertheless, US and Iranian officials might choose to speak on the sidelines of the nuclear negotiation over the ISIS threat.
In the same interview with Yahoo News, Kerry acknowledged the president is considering air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq.
Air strikes are “not the whole answer, but they may well be one of the options that are important,” he said. “When you have people murdering, assassinating in these mass massacres, you have to stop that.”
Videos emerged in recent days of ISIS militiamen massacring Iraqi security forces, crucifying non-Muslims, and forcing women to watch the assaults. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki has declined to confirm the authenticity of the videos, but said that, if verified, they offer a “horrifying and a true depiction of the bloodlust that these terrorists represent.”
On Sunday, Kerry phoned his counterparts in Riyadh, Doha, and Amman over the crisis, which unfolded with dramatic speed last week as ISIS, a Sunni militia seeking a caliphate throughout Iraq and the Levant region, took control of Mosul and threatened an attack against Baghdad.
In an updated travel warning to Americans in Iraq, the State Department acknowledged ISIS had taken control of “sections of Mosul, including government facilities.”
ISIS already claims domain in Syria, where the insurgent group formerly known as al-Qaida in Iraq managed to recalibrate its tactics and reinvigorate its cash flow. ISIS began a military campaign in October 2013 with the explicit aim of conquering territory for its own.
US officials have told The Jerusalem Post that the president is not considering a strike within Syrian territory, where ISIS holds court in its nominal capital, Ar-Raqqah.
Saudi Arabia came out publicly against foreign involvement in the Iraqi conflict, blaming the crisis on the “sectarian and exclusionary” policies of the Shi’ite government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Saudi Arabia is the largest Sunni state in the Arab world.
The slow-walk reconciliation between Iran and the US, expedited by events on the ground, is not entirely unprecedented. A similar exchange took place during former president George W.
Bush’s administration over a shared interest in toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.
Still, Rouhani’s overture marked a dramatic shift in relations after decades of near-silence between the two governments. A public rapprochement began last September – the first of its kind since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 – when Obama called Rouhani congratulating him on his election and expressing hope for better relations between the two nations.
Meanwhile Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke by phone with his British counterpart, William Hague, regarding the situation in Iraq, the Iranian Foreign Ministry announced according to Tasnim News Agency.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian urged Iraqi Kurds on Monday to protect the Iraqi regime from terrorists, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported.
Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, told the Post that if the top goal is to prevent Iraq from falling into the hands of Sunni jihadists, then US-Iran cooperation could be effective, just as it was in the war in Afghanistan.
The difference this time is that the cooperation would be much more open and have “the potential for creating a different relationship, whereas in the past the two sides collaborated while holding their noses,” he said.
“I don’t think Iran can handle Iraq completely on its own,” he said, and it seems to prefer US involvement for this reason.
The utility of collaborating is obvious, said Parsi, noting that any cooperation would likely be much less than the “extensive cooperation” during Bush’s action against the Taliban, when there was military, political, and intelligence cooperation.
“Diplomats met regularly in Geneva and the Iranians showed the US where to bomb,” he added.
Christians began fleeing en masse from Mosul in northern Iraq due to the ISIS conquest of the city, and two churches have reportedly been blown up, reported the Voice of America.
Meanwhile, amid the intensifying conflict, global oil prices have increased by several dollars per barrel over the past few days, notes a report by IHS Energy.
The crisis puts Iraqi production at risk, as ISIS could target such infrastructure, though the main fields in the south are secure now, it said.
Reuters contributed to this report.