Iran’s top commander has been authorized to coordinate military operations with US, Iraqi, and Kurdish forces battling Islamic State (IS) militants in northern Iraq, according to a report today by BBC Persian, citing sources in Tehran.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is said to have approved military cooperation with the US, a longstanding adversary, in the fight against what Tehran and Washington view as a common and growing threat.
A source close to Mr. Khamenei quickly denied that report to The New York Times' Tehran correspondent, however, and government officials later echoed the denial.
Even without an official stamp of approval, both the US and Iran have found themselves on the same side of the Iraqi battlefield since Baghdad's forces collapsed in northern Iraq and Islamic State militants surged in recent months.
The US launched airstrikes against IS positions that broke a two-month siege on the northern town of Amerli last weekend. Concurrently, Iranian military advisors were on the ground guiding an eclectic mix of Kurdish peshmerga forces, Shiite militias, and Iraqi Army troops.
Images posted online show Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, wearing a cap and a checkered scarf but no military insignia, in a desert area purported to be near the Amerli frontline in Iraq. The hardline site Raja News today published photographs of Maj. Gen. Soleimani praying with others at the front.
Yet any US-Iran “coordination” in the latest iteration of war in Iraq is likely to be tactical only, given decades of mutual hostility between the two nations. And past cooperation efforts – especially in Afghanistan, where Iranian officials and the Revolutionary Guard provided critical targeting and other information to US forces after 9/11 against the Taliban – did not yield any substantial thaw. Iran also helped the US to bolt together a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, President George W. Bush declared in 2002 that Iran was part of an "axis of evil," a slap in the face for Tehran.
The Iraq fight comes as both sides are locked in talks to limit Iran’s nuclear program; top diplomats from both sides are now meeting in Geneva in a bid to bridge gaps to meet a November deadline for a final deal. Added to the long list of possible spoilers: the Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent Jason Rezaian, a dual US-Iranian citizen, and his Iranian journalist wife Yeganeh Salehi, have been held in detention in Iran for more than 45 days without charge.
And while both sides may be finding common cause in crushing IS, both have waged a covert war that has seen the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, the Stuxnet computer virus, and unexplained explosions and sabotage. Washington calls Iran the leading “state sponsor” of terrorism, and in recent years a sting operation found an Iranian used-car salesman in Texas guilty of plotting to assassinate the Saudi Arabia ambassador in a Washington, DC restaurant.
Iranian officials in Tehran this week described attempts to recruit Iranian scientists abroad, and showed imported equipment for nuclear work that had been tampered with and sabotaged. “We aim to raise awareness about the enemy, who is more hostile to us every day,” Asghar Zarean, the head of security for Iran’s nuclear program, told the Associated Press.
Mr. Khamenei has repeatedly warned that the US can’t be trusted. In the past, he has limited or ruled out direct contacts with the US, depending on internal politics in Iran, for example, and the state of nuclear talks.
Yet analysts note that Iran’s foreign policy has long been rational and pragmatic, particularly when it comes to its nuclear program. The two most recent US National Intelligence Estimates on Iran, in 2007 and 2011, both noted that Iran adhered to a “cost-benefit analysis" of nuclear strategy.
Until now, Iranian and US officials have downplayed the possibility of directly working with each other, despite sharing the same battlefield. In mid-June, Sec. of State John Kerry said he “wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive,” but that first it had to be seen “what Iran might or might not do before we start making any pronouncements."
Both sides are aware of the deep irony of de facto cooperation, in a war zone in which they previously fought each other, through proxies and sometimes directly, after the US-led invasion in 2003.
Freeing Amerli was a rare success against IS, and Iran has received credit for its backup role.
“The Iranians had a role in this. They supplied weapons and helped with the military planning,” a Kurdish peshmerga commander told Reuters this week, in a district near Amerli called Suleiman Beg. The Iranians had trained the Shiite militias, he said, and helped Kurdish units target their artillery fire.