Iran’s air force has attacked targets of Islamic State (Isis) in eastern Iraq but Tehran has denied that it acted in coordination with the US, which is leading a western-Arab coalition to defeat the jihadi group.
News of air strikes in Iraq’s Diyala province came from the Pentagon in Washington, which said that it was the first time such operations had taken place since Isis captured the Iraqi city of Mosul in June.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, insisted that the US has not coordinated military activities with Iran. He said the US continued to fly its own missions over Iraq and that it was up to the Iraqi government to avoid conflicts in its own airspace.
“Nothing has changed about our policy of not coordinating military activity with the Iranians,” Kirby told reporters in Washington.
In Tehran, the deputy chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Brigadier-General Massoud Jazayeri also denied any collaboration. Iran considered the US responsible for Iraq’s “unrest and problems”, he said, adding that the US would “definitely not have a place in the future of that country”.
Kirby’s comments followed reports that American-made F4 Phantom jets from the Iranian air force had been targeting Isis positions in Diyala. It had earlier been reported that Iran sent three Su-25 fighter jets to Iraq designed for close support of ground troops and that Iranian pilots flew Iraqi aircraft on combat missions.
The anti-Isis campaign has raised the intriguing possibility that the US and Iran, enemies since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, might work together against a common foe. The model has been seen as their brief cooperation against al-Qaida in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Talks about Iraq have taken place in the margins of the so-far inconclusive international negotiations about Iran’s nuclear programme.
But the US has repeatedly denied coordinating with Iran. Last month, following a personal letter sent by President Barack Obama to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, the US national security adviser, Susan Rice, said that “we are in no way engaged in any coordination – military coordination – with Iran on countering Isil [another name for Isis]”.
The two countries remain at odds over the crisis in Syria, with the US calling for the removal of Bashar al-Assad and backing rebel forces. Iran, displaying far greater commitment, provides military and financial support for his regime. Tacit cooperation between Washington and Tehran over Iraq is seen as a classic example of the notion of “my enemy’s enemy becoming my friend”. Key US allies in the Middle East, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, fear any kind of US-Iranian rapprochement.
The US has not invited Iran to join the coalition fighting Isis, and Iran has said it would not join in any case. The grouping includes the UK, France and Australia as well as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE and Bahrain – Sunni Arab states which are deeply suspicious of Iran’s regional ambitions.
Iran has been actively involved in supporting the Shia-led Baghdad government and in recent weeks has gradually raised the profile of its semi-covert presence in Iraq, especially the activities of General Qasim Suleimani, commander of the al-Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards Corps. Suleimani has coordinated the defence of Baghdad and worked with Shia miltias and Kurdish troops.
The US-led air campaign against Isis began on 8 August in Iraq and was extended into Syria in September. But several countries, including the UK, which operate in Iraq, refuse to do so in Syria – highlighting confusion about overall strategy.
News of Iran’s apparently widening role emerged as minsters from the coalition met at the Nato HQ in Brussels for a summit chaired by the US secretary of state, John Kerry. Talks are focusing on military strategy as well as ways to stem the flow of foreign fighters joining Isis and how to counter its slick propaganda, disseminated on social media. The meeting will discuss ways to send “counter-messages” to de-legitimise Isis, a senior US state department official told AFP.