World powers meeting in Paris on Monday gave public backing to military action to fight Islamic State fighters in Iraq. France sent jets on a reconnaissance mission to Iraq, a step toward becoming the first ally to join the U.S.-led air campaign there.
But Iran, the principal ally of Islamic State’s main foes in both Iraq and Syria, was not invited to the Paris meeting. The countries that did attend – while supporting action in Iraq – made no mention at all of Syria, where U.S. diplomats face a far tougher task building an alliance for action.
Washington has been trying to build a coalition to fight Islamic State since last week when President Barack Obama pledged to destroy the militant group on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
That means plunging into two civil wars in which nearly every country in the Middle East already has a stake. And it also puts Washington on the same side as Tehran, its bitter enemy since the Islamic revolution of 1979.
In a rare direct intervention into diplomacy, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Washington had reached out through the Iranian embassy in Baghdad, requesting a meeting to discuss cooperation against Islamic State.
Khamenei said that some Iranian officials had welcomed the contacts, but he had personally vetoed them.
“HANDS ARE DIRTY”
“I saw no point in cooperating with a country whose hands are dirty and intentions murky,” the Iranian leader said in quotes carried on state news agency IRNA. He accused Washington of “lying” by saying it had excluded Iran from its coalition, saying it was Iran that had refused to participate.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was “not cooperating with Iran”, but declined to be drawn on whether it had reached out through the embassy in Baghdad for talks.
“I am not going to get into a back and forth,” he said. “I don’t think that’s constructive, frankly.”
Islamic State fighters set off alarms across the Middle East since June when they swept across northern Iraq, seizing cities, slaughtering prisoners, proclaiming a caliphate to rule over all Muslims and ordering non-Sunnis to convert or die.
IS fighters, known for beheading their enemies or captives, raised the stakes for the West by cutting off the heads of two Americans and a Briton in videos posted on the Internet which showed the prisoners bound in orange jumpsuits.
French officials said they had hoped to invite Iran to Monday’s conference but Arab countries had blocked the move.
“We wanted a consensus among countries over Iran’s attendance, but in the end it was more important to have certain Arab states than Iran,” a French diplomat said.
Calling the decision regrettable, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said Baghdad had wanted Iran to attend.
Iran sponsors the governments of both Iraq and Syria and has been at the center of defenses against Islamic State in both countries. The United States reached out to Iran last year when secret talks led to a preliminary deal on nuclear issues.
Iran has occasionally played down its conflicts with the West since President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, was elected last year. Khamenei’s intervention, including his statement that some Iranian officials welcomed the U.S. overture, was a rare public acknowledgment of division but also a reminder that powerful interests in Iran oppose a wider thaw- Reuters