Heads in the Sand

U.S. and Iran Hit ISIS, Ignore Each Other

With ISIS over-running Syrian bases, the time might seem right for a grand alliance against the Islamic State. But so far, the U.S. isn’t talking to Iran or Syria’s armies.


U.S. warplanes striking targets in Iraq. Iranian tanks are reportedly moving into the northern part of the country. But the two foreign militaries fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) are not talking to one another.

U.S. and Iraqi officials tell The Daily Beast that, for now, there is no direct channel to coordinate military activities inside Iraq. Instead messages are occasionally passed by senior Iraqi officials who have for years served as interlocutors between Iran and the United States.

“Our channels are no different than they were a year ago,” said one senior U.S. official. “There is a lot of activity, but we have not opened a new channel.”

Last week, some foreign policy analysts in Washington publicly argued that the ISIS threat ought to spur a grand alliance with Iran, Syria, Russia, and the United States fighting on the same side against the terrorist group that has morphed into an army and (at least according to their own propaganda) a caliphate.

But so far, that has yet to happen. On Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said any U.S. activity inside Syria against ISIS would be seen as an “act of aggression.” Despite that warning, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon is preparing to send surveillance planes into Syrian airspace.

While Russia has provided military aircraft to Iraq to fight ISIS, tension between the White House and the Kremlin continues to build. The Obama administration put the Putin regime on notice this week for sending advanced weapons into Ukraine in what Russia said was a humanitarian aid mission.

Iran’s leaders, meanwhile, have signaled that they would be willing to strike a deal. Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was reported in the Iranian press to say that Tehran would be willing to join an international coalition against ISIS, provided that the United States lift all sanctions against the country. Iran’s foreign ministry later said the report was incorrect and that the foreign minister was mistranslated.

An Iraqi official who works closely with the U.S. military told The Daily Beast that Iraqi politicians, particularly Kurds and Shi’ite nationalists, continue to pass messages back and forth between Iran and the United States. But for now the main channel for U.S.-Iran talks are the nuclear negotiations in Vienna, Austria.

A senior U.S. official added that after Mosul fell in June to ISIS, U.S. diplomats raised the Iraq issue to Zarif on the sidelines of nuclear negotiations. But the official said this was meant only to inform Iran about U.S. actions, not to start negotiations over what to do about ISIS.

Inside Iraq, Iran has provided the Iraqi military with some advisers, flown some drones and offered Prime Minister Maliki whatever he said he needed. But that offer was made in June. This month Maliki said he would step down and work with his successor to help form a new government. Last week, reports from northern Iraq said Iran had positioned tanks in the fight against ISIS.

The United States and Iran have, at times, coordinated on a technical level in Iraq before. In the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq invasion, U.S. and Iranian delegations discussed issues such as the protocol for if a U.S. pilot was shot down over Iranian territory. In 2007, then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker opened a channel to Iran, even as U.S. forces were conducting a campaign against Iran’s network in Iraq that it had accused of providing insurgents with powerful roadside bombs.

James Jeffrey, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq between 2010 and 2012, said the Crocker channel “did not lead anywhere, but it was an opening.”

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Jeffrey said that the U.S. military from time to time has opened channels with Iran to discuss technical issues in the Gulf, but that there was no formal protocol for such discussions as there is with China and Russia.

Jeffrey said any formal and public opening with Iran over Iraq also brought with it some political risks. “The danger of that is people are going to think we are coordinating with Iran,” he said. “We have a terrible problem already with the Sunni Arab states and the Israelis, we have to be very careful on this. Iran is on the other side of the Syrian dispute and we need the majority of Sunnis, who don’t want Assad to be in power, to join us against ISIS.”

While Iran is not yet coordinating policy or military action in Iraq with the United States, there is a prospect for such coordination with one of America’s closest allies, Saudi Arabia. On Tuesday, Iran’s deputy foreign minister is expected to arrive in Saudi Arabia for high-level talks with the kingdom.