The collapse of Iraq has led Britain and the United States towards a historic rapprochement with Iran which could end 35 years of hostility.
Moves to strengthen Britain’s diplomatic ties with Iran in an attempt to fashion a joint response to the Iraq crisis will be set out today by William Hague, the Foreign Secretary.
The initiative, which could include the reopening of the UK’s embassy in Tehran, comes after Mr Hague held talks with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The Iranian government is known to be contemplating sending military support to the Shia-dominated Iraqi government and has indicated that it is interested in working with the US and the UK. The seizure of Mosul and large parts of northern Iraq by Isis has caused chaos in Baghdad and raises the possibility of a bitter sectarian war which would destabilise the region.
The US confirmed yesterday that it may also enter discussions with Iran as soon as this week on co-operation to counter the jihadist insurgency that threatens Iraq.
“I wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive,” the Secretary of State, John Kerry, commented when asked about the possibility of seeking Iran’s help to contain the crisis. He also conceded that US air strikes may also need to be part of the American response.
In a statement to the House of Commons, Mr Hague said Britain shared “important common interests with Iran”, including stability in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He made clear Britain would not join military action against Isis fighters, but said the US was “looking at all options”. He announced that Britain had dispatched a team of counter-terrorism experts to help the Iraqi forces.
Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, told reporters that it was possible for the US and Iran to co-operate against Isis in Iraq. “We can think about it, if we see America starts confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq or elsewhere,” he said. While there was no guarantee of any meeting of minds with Iran nor any clarity on what co-operation would mean, first contacts on the issue were expected to take place between senior diplomats on the fringes of nuclear talks between Iran and the Western powers in Vienna, which opened yesterday.
A senior US official acknowledged that Vienna might be the best venue for such contacts, but he insisted that any conversations about Iraq would have to be “completely unconnected” to the nuclear dossier.
The fear of Iraq coming apart at the seams is scrambling just about every assumption in Washington relating to foreign policy and the Middle East. Any decision by President Barack Obama to authorise air strikes in Iraq would end his commitment to disengage the US and its forces from the region.
There is almost no option open to Mr Obama that will not generate fierce criticism from his foes on Capitol Hill. While Senator John McCain has said that President Obama’s decision to withdraw all troops from Iraq in 2011 set the stage for the current insurgency, yesterday he denounced all suggestion of talking to Iran on the topic.
Certain to add to frustration on Capitol Hill was the confirmation by the Spanish government last night that it had arrested eight people accused of running a recruiting network in Madrid for men to go and fight with the insurgency and that one of them was a former Guantanamo Bay detainee released by the US.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said that whatever form diplomatic discussions with Iran may take there was no prospect of direct co-operation between Iranian and US forces in Iraq.
While the White House has spoken openly about coming to the aid of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to repel the advance of the Isis rebel fighters, it appears to have set a clear condition that he must first begin a political transition that would lead to the inclusion of Sunni and Kurd elements in central government.
In the meantime, however, the Pentagon has been drawing up contingency options for the President for action in Iraq which would not involve any troops on the ground but could lead to aerial strikes using either drones or attack aircraft. “They’re not the whole answer, but they may well be one of the options that are important,” Mr Kerry said about possible air strikes.
Mr McCain contended that any rapprochement with Iran in response to the crisis would be the “height of folly”.
He added: “This is the same Iranian regime that has trained and armed the most dangerous Shia militant groups, that has consistently urged Prime Minister Maliki to pursue a narrow sectarian agenda at the expense of national reconciliation, that supplies the rockets that have been fired at the US embassy in Baghdad, that has sponsored acts of terrorism throughout the Middle East and the world.”
The US State Department said yesterday that possible talks with Iran over Iraq would not be about military co-operation but would seek to urge Tehran to press the government of Mr Maliki to resolve its problems.
“We believe the focus should be on encouraging Iraq’s leaders to govern in a non-sectarian way, and our discussion wouldn’t be about co-operating or co-ordinating on military goals,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a daily briefing.
In the Commons, Mr Hague said that some of the 400 British nationals and “UK-linked individuals” fighting for Isis in Syria would inevitably have crossed the border into Iraq. He added that Theresa May, the Home Secretary, would not hesitate to use her powers to take away their passports or revoke their permission to remain in Britain.
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