Why is key player in Islamic State fight absent from coalition talks?

Iran's role in strikes against the Islamic State – and the United States' seeming acceptance of their participation – has sparked ire among members of the international coalition combating the militant group.

Michel Euler/AP
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (l.) and France's President Francois Hollande (r.) attend a joint media conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met earlier with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Brussels to discuss the fight against Islamic State militants.

When Secretary of State John Kerry gathered the 60 members of the anti-Islamic State international coalition for a pep talk in Brussels Wednesday, one of the most active countries in the fight to roll back and eventually destroy the extremist Islamist group was not even present.

That would be Iran.

While Secretary Kerry was telling foreign ministers from dozens of countries making up the coalition that the military campaign against the Islamic State has already registered significant success, footage of Iranian bombers pummeling the militant group's positions in Iraq’s eastern Diyala province was appearing around the world.

The videos of Iranian Air Force Phantom F-4 jets in action over Iraq, first reported by Al Jazeera, underscored the direct role Iran is playing in the battle against the Islamic State. However Iran’s absence from the Brussels meeting suggested the Iranian role is causing a deep unease among some US allies in the coalition.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey in particular reject any place for Iran in the effort against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL, or, among Arabs, as Daesh. Turkey wants the international coalition to add forcing out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to its goals, and it views Iran’s support of Mr. Assad as a major impediment to ending the Syrian civil war that gave rise to the Islamic State. Sunni Islamic Saudi Arabia considers Shiite Iran its chief rival in the region and rejects its participation in a fight against Sunni Islamists.

Regional unease about the US government's willingness to accept an Iranian role was aggravated last month by reports that President Obama in October penned a letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenai, in which he emphasized the common interest the two countries have in defeating the militant group.

Senior US officials have recognized the interest Iran has in seeing the Islamic State stopped. Kerry has said the US is open to “discussions” with Iran on fighting the militants but that there is no “cooperation” between the two countries on the military campaign against the Islamic State.

That approach was evident in the US response to the reports of Iranian bomber activity in Iraq’s Diyala province, which has a long border with Iran.

When asked Tuesday about the reports of Iranian fighter activity, Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said, “I have no reason to believe that they’re not true.” The US keeps close track of air traffic over Iraq and would know if the airstrikes had taken place or not.

Some military experts have speculated that the United States, which is also carrying out airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State, is very likely informing Iran of its activity through Iraqi officials. That scenario seemed to be confirmed by Rear Admiral Kirby, who said that as the US carries out missions over Iraq, “we coordinate with the Iraqi government as we conduct those.”

He went on to say, “It’s the Iraqi airspace and Iraqis’ to deconflict,” using a military term for any effort to keep skies or a battle zone free of accidental collision. “We are not coordinating with nor are we deconflicting with Iranian military.” 

Officially Iran denied that it had carried out airstrikes in Iraq, but privately some Iranians with close knowledge of Iranian military activity confirmed the raids.

At the Brussels meeting, Kerry tempered his positive report on progress over the coalition’s short time in operation – Mr. Obama first announced a lead group of 10 nations willing to fight the Islamic State in September – with the reality of a long road ahead.

“Our commitment will be measured most likely in years, but our efforts are already having a significant impact,” Kerry told his colleagues.

Using the Arabic name for the Islamic State, he said, “It is much harder now than when we started for Daesh to assemble forces in strength, to travel in convoys, and to launch concerted attacks. No large Daesh unit can move forward aggressively,” Kerry added, “without worrying about what will come down on it from the skies.”

In a joint statement issued at the close of the meeting, the ministers hailed what they said has been the coalition’s success at halting the Islamic State's military advance. Beyond that, US-led airstrikes on the militants’ positions have allowed Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces to reclaim territory, the statement said.

In a sign of the cautious optimism pervading the coalition meeting, the foreign ministers took time to discuss the rebuilding effort that will be necessary in Iraq once the Islamic State is defeated.

The often dour Kerry even said that the US and others are “excited” at the prospect of regional engagement “across sectarian lines” to help in Iraq’s reconstruction.

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