“We’re open to discussions if there is something constructive that can be contributed by Iran, if Iran is prepared to do something that is going to respect the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq,” the diplomat told Yahoo News on Monday when questioned about joining forces with Iran, which enjoys religious ties with the embattled government in Baghdad.
But Kerry warned that the US should “see what Iran might or might not be willing to do before we start making any pronouncements.”
Later, the State Department and the Pentagon clarified that any joint action would be political and not military.
“There is absolutely no intention and no plan to coordinate military activity between the United States and Iran…there are no plans to have consultations with Iran about military activities in Iraq,” said Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.
The Al-Qaeda offshoot ISIS (or ISIL) – the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant – has pushed from its strongholds on the Syrian border and taken the major urban centers of Mosul and Tikrit over the past week. Its militias are currently stationed on the outskirts of Baghdad, where the government is staging a counter-offensive. Over the weekend, it claimed to have executed 1,700 loyalist officers.
“This is a challenge to the stability of the region. It is obviously an existential challenge to Iraq itself. This is a terrorist group,” Kerry said of ISIS, a Sunni organization which has exploited the sectarian tensions partially incited by the hardline Shia policies of the current government.
The diplomat heavily criticized Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, but said the US will not be “issuing instructions or orders” for him to resign or share power. He did, however, call on the “Iraqi people to form a government that represents all of the interests of Iraq — not one sectarian group over another.”
Nonetheless, Kerry reiterated previous statements saying that the US would consider using air strikes – whether manned or unmanned – to prevent Baghdad from being taken by extremists.
“They’re not the whole answer, but they may well be one of the options that are important,” said Kerry. “I wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive.”
The diplomat said that President Barack Obama is conducting “a very thorough vetting of every option that is available.”
Obama previously said the US would avoid a direct military intervention in the country it invaded in 2003 and left only three years ago.
Kerry echoed concerns by other US politicians that the growing might of ISIS – which plundered US$425 million from a government vault in Mosul last week and enjoys generous funding from Wahhabis in the Arabian peninsula – is endangering American national security.
ISIS “clearly are focused not just there, but they’re focused on trying to do harm to Europe, to America and other people, and that’s why we believe it is so important for us to be engaged.”
Kerry said the organization counted fighters from the US, Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, and the Netherlands in its ranks – and that those could later return to their home countries to stage terrorist acts.
Iran + US = a far-fetched plan?
While the idea that Washington and Tehran may work alongside each other is a testament to the thawing of relations between recent adversaries, it currently seems unlikely that the initiative will bear fruit.
The two countries share a genuine strategic interest in keeping the Maliki government afloat (though their motives for doing so are fundamentally different) and Western media outlets have reported that the Islamic Republic has already dispatched elite Revolutionary Guards troops to buffer the Iraqi government, citing Iraqi and American officials.
But Iran has denied any military involvement in its neighbor’s conflict, as the head of the country’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, publicly rebuffed the US offer, calling it “unrealistic.”
The two countries are also locked in tense late-stage negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and potential sanctions relief. On Monday, the State Department released a statement saying that while it will discuss Iraq with Iranian officials at upcoming talks in Vienna, it is reluctant to link the two issues together.