Secretary of State John Kerry closed the door on the possibility of the United States working closely with Iran over the ongoing crisis in Iraq on Thursday, walking back comments earlier in the week and going against the suggestions of even a few Republicans in Congress.
On Monday, Kerry had told Yahoo! News’ Katie Couric regarding Iran’s role in potentially ending the crisis that has seen several major Iraqi cities fall into terrorist hands, “I think we are open to any constructive process here that could minimize the violence, hold Iraq together, the integrity of the country, and eliminate the presence of outside terrorist forces that are ripping it apart.” When NBC’s Savannah Guthrie asked about the potential that the U.S. could find itself cooperating with its longtime adversary today, however, Kerry was dismissive. “I don’t know where this comes from that we’ve suggested working with Iran in that regard,” he told Guthrie.
When Guthrie pointed out that he himself had said something to that effect on Monday, he walked it back. “What I said is we are interested in communicating with Iran, to make clear that the Iranians know what we’re thinking, and we know what they’re thinking, so there’s a sharing of information, so people aren’t making mistakes,” he said. “No, we’re not sitting around contemplating how we’re going to do that, or if we’re going to do that. It’s not on the table.”
Kerry’s words were the firmest pronouncement yet that the U.S. isn’t considering considering working directly with Tehran to help secure Iraq. Though some discussions occurred on the sideline of the talks over Iran’s nuclear program on Monday, both Iranian and American officials denied that military cooperation was near at hand. “There are no plans to have consultations with Iran about military activities in Iraq,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby had said earlier in the week. “We encourage Iran, like all the neighbors in the region, to play a constructive role, to respect the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Iraq while Iraq is going through this difficult time.”
The secretary’s initial suggestion on Monday led to a flurry of chatter about the potential that the two’s strategic interests in coming closer together — but also harsh criticisms of the possibility of a detante. Some conservative outlets pointed to the fact that Kerry’s own State Department had yet again named Iran as one of the world’s chief state sponsors of terrorism this year. Michael Doran and Max Boot, both outspoken advocates of the U.S. using force around the world, argued that suggestions of Washington and Tehran cooperating were “as fanciful as the notion that Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler could work together for the good of Europe.” And Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) on Thursday morning tweet out, “#Iran continues to finance & foster terrorism. America should absolutely not accept its role in #Iraq.”
But some have argued that now is the right time to reach out to Iran to help stop the march of militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) — also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — towards Baghdad. The Wall Street Journal reported last week, though the administration has thus far not confirmed, that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps into Iraq to help bolster Iraq’s beleaguered army. Iraqi Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki is also closely tied to his fellow Shiites in Iran — though some would say too closely.
At what was meant to be a budget hearing on Wednesday, senators on the Armed Services Committee peppered Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey with questions about Iraq and the chances of the U.S. working with Iran. Hagel pointed to cooperation on Afghanistan between the two countries after 9/11. “None was more [helpful] than the Iranians,” said James Dobbins, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan at the time, wrote in the Washington Post of Iran’s efforts to help stabilize a post-Taliban Afghanistan. “So there’s some history here of sharing common interests,” Hagel said, pointing to “significant differences” with Iran, but adding, “I don’t think these issues come neatly wrapped in geopolitical graduate school papers.”
Al-Maliki has thus far resisted pressures from the United States to reform his government in exchange for American military assistance, leaving a window for potential Iranian-American cooperation to help solve the crisis. “One possibility would be for the U.S. and Iran to agree on Maliki being replaced by a less polarizing figure,” the Atlantic Council’s Barbara Slavin argued at Al Jazeera. “Given that Iraq held elections in April in which Maliki’s ‘State of Law’ party won a plurality but not a majority of parliamentary seats, which could be doable. The U.S. and Iran might also seek agreement on a Sunni or Kurdish defense minister — a portfolio Maliki had kept for himself.”
Should the administration eventually choose to go down that path, they’d have political cover from one of the most unlikely corners: Iran hawk Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). “The Iranians can provide some assets to make sure Baghdad doesn’t fall. We need to coordinate with the Iranians and the Turks need to get in the game and get the Sunni Arabs back into the game, form a new government without Maliki,” Graham said this Sunday. Graham reiterated those comments on Wednesday, saying “I’ll talk to anybody to help our people from being captured or killed … And this is a time where the Iranians in a small way might help.”