Iran has rejected direct overtures from top U.S. diplomats, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, to cooperate with Washington in the battle against Islamic State extremists in Iraq, Iran’s supreme leader said Monday.
In his most extensive comments to date on the crisis, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad had requested a meeting with his Iranian counterpart to discuss “coordination” between the two nations to confront the threat of the Al Qaeda breakaway faction. The U.S., for its part, says it is not coordinating military efforts against Islamic State with Iran, though it has repeatedly discussed the issue with Iranian officials.
“I opposed [the U.S. request] and told them we will not cooperate with the Americans on the issue because their intent and hands are not clean,” Khamenei said after being discharged from a weeklong hospital stay during which he underwent prostate surgery, reported Press TV, Iran’s official English-language news outlet. “How is it possible for us to cooperate with the Americans under such circumstances?”
According to Khamenei, Iran also rebuffed a request from Kerry for “cooperation,” as the Obama administration seeks to build an international coalition against the Islamic State group. The request was conveyed “personally” from Kerry to the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Khamenei said.
“Iran has voiced its opposition to being a party to that coalition from the very beginning,” said Iran’s supreme leader. “The Americans’ coalition is nonsense.”
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said the issue of countering the Islamic State has come up in sideline discussions with Iranian officials during ongoing nuclear negotiations involving Iran and six world powers, known as the P5+1 talks.
“ISIL presents a serious threat to Iran as it does to every other state in the region,” Harf said, using a common acronym for Islamic State. “It is not a secret that we have had discussions with Iran about the counter-ISIL efforts in Iraq on the margins of our P5+1 talks on the nuclear issue. ... But we are not and will not coordinate militarily.”
The comments from Tehran and Washington highlight how the Sunni militant threat in Iraq and Syria has created a public relations quandary for two nations that have not had formal diplomatic relations in more than three decades.
In seeking to form an international bloc to fight Islamic State, the White House has publicly ruled out any role for Iran, also a longtime adversary and rival of Saudi Arabia and Israel, two major U.S. regional allies.
Iran was excluded from a global security conference on the threat posed by Islamic State that was held in Paris on Monday.
In Ankara on Friday, Kerry said that Iran’s participation in the Paris conference “would not be appropriate, given the many other issues that are on the table with respect to their engagement in Syria and elsewhere.”
Shiite Iran is a major supporter of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces are also battling the Sunni extremists in Syria. The United States, while vowing to “destroy” Islamic State, is backing other rebel factions fighting to oust Assad.
The Obama administration, which has called for Assad to step down, has also ruled out the Syrian government’s participation in the coalition against Islamic State.
Iran, like the United States, is heavily invested in the battle against the Al Qaeda-breakaway group, which has seized vast stretches of territory in both Iraq and neighboring Syria. But officials of the two longtime adversaries have declined to say publicly that they are fighting on the same side in Iraq. The situation touches on sensitive geopolitical concerns in both capitals and among both nation’s chief allies.
Both Tehran and Washington have provided Iraq with military assistance against Islamic State, which views Shiites as apostates. Iran is a largely Shiite nation that shares an almost 1,000-mile-long border with Iraq, which also has a majority Shiite population.
Iranian officials have generally viewed the U.S. aerial offensive against Islamic State as a means to bolster Washington’s military presence in the region. Iranian authorities also fear that the U.S. military may use the Islamic State threat as a pretext for a hidden agenda to bombard Syrian government positions with an eye toward toppling Iranian-backed Assad.
Iranian commentators regularly blame the West and its allies in the gulf and Turkey for abetting the rise of Islamic State through financial and materiel support for extremist fighters on the ground in Syria. Washington says it has supported only Syrian rebels it considers moderate and rejects any responsibility for contributing to the rise of Islamic State militancy.
Mostaghim is a special correspondent. Times staff writer McDonnell contributed from Beirut and Times staff writer Richter from Washington.