The United States and Iran could co-operate in coping with the crisis in Iraq but President Barack Obama on Monday ruled out joint military action with Tehran.
The President is "not interested in any effort to co-ordinate military activities with Iran," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest aboard Air Force One, which was flying Mr. Obama back to Washington after a three-day weekend in California.
In a stunning move as Iraq verged on dismemberment along the Sunni-Shia fault line, Secretary of State John Kerry signalled that Washington would be willing to work with Iran in battling what he called an "existential" threat facing not just Iraq but the entire Middle East.
Tehran's ruling mullahs have long viewed the United States as the "Great Satan" while successive U.S. presidents have dubbed Iran a "terrorist-sponsoring" regime. But Mr. Obama proffered to open talks after the election last year of the relative moderate Hassan Rouhani as Iran's president. And the two nations, despite no diplomatic relations since 1979, have been working on a pact to limit Iran's nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions.
But the dramatic Sunni uprising in Iraq – spearheaded by the masked, ruthless, black-garbed militants from the al-Qaeda inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – may make Tehran and Washington wary bedfellows in a joint effort to save the Shia-dominated regime in Baghdad.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that representatives of Tehran and Washington discussed Iraq briefly on Monday on the sidelines of a Vienna meeting on Iran's nuclear program, Reuters reported.
Mr. Kerry was cautious and conditional about co-ordinated action with Tehran. "Let's see what Iran might or might not be willing to do," he said, adding, the President was "open to any constructive process that could minimize the violence, hold Iraq together, and eliminate the presence of outside terrorist forces that are ripping it apart."
It amounted to an admission that without American boots on the ground – something Mr. Obama has ruled out – the President needs someone's ground forces to hold territory and thus make U.S. air strikes a meaningful military option. Washington also needs Tehran, the region's leading Shia power, to apply pressure to Iraq's recalcitrant Shia prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
Mr. Kerry was less blunt but seemed to acknowledge that Washington needed whatever allies it could find as Mr. Obama faced the worst foreign-policy crisis of his presidency.
Any co-ordination with Tehran also carries grave political risks for Mr. Obama, especially given Iran's ongoing and major support for the brutal Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. In effect, help from Iran to prop up Mr. al-Maliki would mean getting help from the same Iranian Revolutionary Guard corps that is waging ruthless war on pro-democracy rebels in Syria.
Some of Washington's closest allies were also wooing Tehran. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he would "imminently" be announcing closer ties with Iran, apparently as part of a Western push to get Iran's help before the crisis spins out of control.
The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which suspended diplomatic relations with Iran in September, 2012, is unlikely to join in. Foreign Minister John Baird said Canada is concerned about extremist gains in Iraq, but warned that Iranian co-operaton with the West should not come at the cost of concessions on its nuclear program. "Whatever they [the Iranians] do in Iraq doesn't absolve them of the blood on their hands for their abysmal human-rights record," he said. "And it doesn't give them a pass on these nuclear discussions."
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, told Congress on Monday he was deploying up to 275 military personnel to bolster security at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. "This force is deploying for the purpose of protecting U.S. citizens and property, if necessary, and is equipped for combat," he said in a letter to lawmakers. "This force will remain in Iraq until the security situation becomes such that it is no longer needed."
The President said he was notifying Congress under the War Powers Resolution. Mr. Obama has also ordered the aircraft carrier U.S.S. George H.W. Bush, with scores of warplanes on board, into the Persian Gulf to join other U.S. warships with cruise missiles. A smaller carrier with more than 500 Marines and a squadron of long-distance Ospreys capable of landing like helicopters was also sent into the Gulf on Monday.
Last week, the President made clear that, short of ground troops, all options were on the table.
Republican hawks, long critical of Mr. Obama for pulling all U.S. troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011, have been warning the U.S. President that he must seek Iranian help, no matter how distasteful.
"Why did we deal with Stalin? Because he was not as bad as Hitler," Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said Sunday. "Don't let the Iranians save Baghdad. Let us save Baghdad, so there will be a chance" to replace the al-Maliki government with one that is inclusive of Sunnis.
But pinprick drone strikes with small Hellfire missiles – of the type favoured by Mr. Obama to kill extremist leaders in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan – will be of little use against large movements of troops, especially now that ISIL and its Sunni allies have captured large numbers of modern, U.S., armoured vehicles from fleeing Iraqi troops.
Sustained air strikes may be needed if Sunni militias are to be driven out of cities they have already captured.
Air strikes are "not the whole answer, but they may well be one of the options that are important," Mr. Kerry said. "When you have people murdering, assassinating in these mass massacres, you have to stop that," he told Katie Couric of Yahoo News.
The two-pronged ISIL advance has wrestled the Sunni triangle from Baghdad's control. Launched from its base in northeastern Syria, ISIL and allied Sunni militias advanced in a pincer movement following the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. On the Euphrates, they control as far downstream as Ramadi and Fallujah, barely 50 kilometres west of Baghdad. On the Tigris, they seized Mosul and Tikrit last week and are now poised just north of the Shia shrine city of Samarra, less than 100 kilometres from Baghdad.
ISIL also shocked the world and spread terror among Iraqi soldiers when it released horrific photographs purportedly showing the massacre of hundreds of unarmed prisoners forced to lie in freshly dug trenches before being killed with bursts of gunfire.
"Although the numbers cannot be verified yet, this apparently systematic series of cold-blooded executions, mostly conducted in various locations in the Tikrit area, almost certainly amounts to war crimes," said UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay.
With a report from Campbell Clark in Ottawa