BY: RICK GLADSTONE, THOMAS ERDBRINK & MICHAEL R GORDON
The United States and Iran on Monday signalled increased willingness to work together to arrest the expanding Sunni insurgency in Iraq, with Secretary of State John Kerry openly suggesting such a collaboration would be constructive, and another American official saying the subject could come up at talks this week on the Iranian nuclear dispute.
Cooperation between the US and Iran to contain the Iraqi crisis would represent the first time the two countries — estranged adversaries for more than three decades — have jointly undertaken a common security purpose since they shared military intelligence to counter the Taliban in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks 13 years ago.
Kerry, in an interview with Yahoo News, called the advance by insurgents under the banner of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria over the past week an “existential threat” to Iraq, and suggested American airstrikes were one possible answer. Asked if the US would cooperate with Iran to thwart ISIS, Kerry said, “I wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive.”
A senior Obama administration official said that Deputy Secretary of State William J Burns may talk to the Iranians about Iraq at the nuclear talks, which are to reconvene on Wednesday in Vienna. “There may be discussion of that on the margins,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
A State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, later sought to more precisely define the nature of any cooperation, asserting it would be entirely political.
“We believe the focus should be on encouraging Iraq’s leaders to govern in a non-sectarian way, and our discussion wouldn’t be about cooperating or coordinating on military goals,” she told reporters at a daily briefing.
Late night reports from AP and Reuters, however, quoted White House official Josh Earnest as telling reporters travelling aboard Air Force One that the US was not interested in military coordination with Tehran.
“Any of those conversations that may occur on the margins are entirely separate from the conversations about Iran’s nuclear programme… Any conversations with the Iranian regime will not include military coordination,” Earnest said. “We’re not interested in any effort to coordinate military activities with Iran.”
Separately, the wire services reported that President Barack Obama’s national security team would present him with some options on Iraq on Monday night (Tuesday morning India time).]
In Iran, a strong backer of the Shiite government in Iraq, top officials signalled readiness to collaborate with the US on containing the crisis that Tehran has partly blamed on the legacy of the American military’s eight-year war that ousted Saddam Hussein.
On Sunday, Hamid Aboutalebi, a key aide to President Hassan Rouhani, wrote in a series of messages on his Persian Twitter account that only Iran and the US were in a position to solve the Iraq crisis.
Rouhani has said he would welcome efforts by “all countries in combating terrorism”.
Aboutalebi conciliatory tone was noteworthy given that he was Rouhani’s choice to be Iran’s new United Nations ambassador, but was rejected by the US earlier this year because of his indirect role as a translator for the militants who seized the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979, setting off the break in Iranian-American ties that has shaped the relationship ever since.
In the US, the signs of American-Iranian cooperation on the Iraq crisis set off new rounds of recrimination over whether such a move was in Washington’s interest or a strategic mistake.
Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, a group that has promoted diplomacy with Iran and a peaceful resolution to the nuclear dispute, welcomed such cooperation.
Vocal American critics of Iran’s government, on the other hand, castigated the Obama administration for even considering a collaboration with Iran, calling it a blunder that Iran would seek to exploit for its own ends in the nuclear talks.