US, Iran strikes on ISIL show parallel roles for traditional foes

Washington and Tehran are on the same side against ISIL, even as they deny coordination

Reports that Iran has carried out airstrikes on Iraqi soil targeting ISIL fighters are but the latest evidence of Tehran's robust security role in Iraq, and of the extent to which the need to stem the extremist's advance has put traditional foes Iran and the United States into a de facto alliance that neither will acknowledge.

Pentagon officials said on Wednesday that Iran had last month attacked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) positions in eastern Iraq, in the Diyala province, near the Iranian border.

Tehran and Washington have publicly rejected any suggestion that the strikes mean that the U.S. and Iran are coordinating anti-ISIL efforts, while one senior Iranian official on Wednesday even denied that Iran had, in fact, carried out the strikes.

"Iran has never been involved in any airstrikes against Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIL] targets in Iraq. Any cooperation in such strikes with America is also out of question for Iran," a senior Iranian official told Reuters.

But Hamid Reza Taraghi, an Iranian politician who spokes with the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday, said Iranian military action within Iraq was well within Tehran’s rights.

“Iran regards the area as a buffer zone and does not tolerate any military threats within that buffer zone,” he told the newspaper.

Speaking during a meeting of the U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition in Brussels on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said: "If Iran is taking on [ISIL] in some particular place... and it has an impact, then it's going to be net effect [that] is positive.”  But he added that, "I am not going to make any announcements or confirm or deny the reported military action of another country in Iraq. It is up to them [the Iranians] or up to the Iraqis to do that if it did indeed took place.”

At a White House press briefing, administration spokesmen Josh Earnest said that the U.S. had not changed its rejection of coordination with Iran. "At this point our calculation about the wisdom of cooperating with the Iranians hasn't changed," he said "We're not going to do it.”

But while both sides deny official cooperation, many analysts believe that some kind of behind the scenes coordination is very likely.

Mark Perry, a military analyst and historian said he thought it highly unlikely that no communication was occurring between the Americans and Iranians. “I don’t think we could take the chance of … each side occupying the same airspace," Perry said. "It’s just too dangerous."

Despite 35 years of mutual antagonism since the Iranian Revolution, Iran and the U.S. appear to have reached a de facto understanding over ISIL, while intense diplomatic negotiations over Iran’s disputed nuclear program — recently extended for another six months — signal a broader cooling of tensions.

While strong Iranian influence has been evident in Baghdad since the first democratic elections in January 2005 returned a government dominated by Shia parties closer to Tehran than they were to Washington, direct military involvement in Iraq has more recently been made more visible.

Last month, Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, confirmed that Iran had been involved in helping the Iraq government “defend itself against ISIL militants.” That came after weeks of reports that Qasem Soleimani, who heads the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and who has been regularly photographed in Iraq, was participating in anti-ISIL operations and in training Iran-backed Shia militias.

In August, the U.S. intelligence consultancy Stratfor reported that there had been direct coordination between U.S. and Iranian personnel when the Quds Force had fought alongside the Kurdish peshmerga on the ground in Diyala province, while the U.S. was targeting the same ISIL enemy from the air. "This does not mean that either side will get comfortable with this working relationship," Stratfor wrote at the time. "However, the situation in Iraq is driving the United States and Iran toward cooperation."

For now, the Pentagon says officially that while it is aware of Iranian activities in the Iraq, it is ultimately up to the Iraqi government to decide what help it receives — and to act as a middleman between Iranian and U.S. operations.

“It's the Iraqi air space and [Iraq’s] to deconflict. We are not coordinating with nor are we deconflicting with Iranian military,” Pentagon spokesmen Rear Admiral John Kirby said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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