Iran’s president held out the prospect of working with the U.S. in a bid to stabilize strife-torn Iraq on Saturday, but denied reports that troops had already been sent across the border to bolster its failing neighbor’s counter-insurgency efforts.
Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist who is presiding over a nascent thaw in Iran's relations with the West, said if Washington was willing to confront "terrorist groups in Iraq and elsewhere," then Tehran would contemplate cooperating with its traditional foe over Iraq.
Echoing comments made by President Barack Obama on Friday, Rouhani added that Tehran was unlikely to send forces to Iraq but stood ready to provide help within the framework of international law. Baghdad has not as yet requested such assistance, he added.
His words come amid reports that Iranian boots were already on the ground in Iraq. The Guardian cited a “senior Iraqi official” as confirming that Tehran had sent a 2,000-strong advance force into its neighbor.
Iran has been alarmed by the seizure this week of several major northern Iraqi towns by foreign insurgent forces and their sweep southward to within an hour's drive of Baghdad, and not far from the Iranian border.
Rouhani suggested in a press conference that the militants are linked to Iraqi politicians who lost in parliamentary elections held in April.
"Those defeated [in elections] have resorted to bullets. This is a grave blunder," Rouhani said. "We all should practically and verbally confront terrorist groups."
Asked if Tehran would work with Washington in tackling the advances by insurgents in Iraq, he replied: "We can think about it if we see America starts confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq or elsewhere."
Iran has built close political and economic ties with Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's government, and many influential Iraqis, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have spent time in Iran.
Maliki, meanwhile, has issued a rallying call to his countrymen to take up arms against insurgents from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“We are not sectarian, we will fight as a nation," Maliki said in a speech shown on state television Saturday.
The ISIL rebellion this week swept through territory toward Baghdad. It has led to international concerns that an already bloody situation in Iraq could quickly deteriorate into all-out civil war, and further destabilize the region.
A senior Iranian official told Reuters earlier this week that Tehran may be ready to cooperate with Washington in helping Baghdad fight back against ISIL rebels.
President Barack Obama on Friday said that the U.S. would not be drawn into sending troops into Iraq. But he said all other options were being evaluated, including targeted strikes.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush to move into the Arabian Gulf from its location in the North Arabian Sea on Saturday, according to Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby.
The carrier will provide Obama with additional flexibility should military options be considered, Kirby said in a statement, adding that the ship will be accompanied by two guided-missile cruisers.
"Iran has never dispatched any forces to Iraq, and it is very unlikely it will ever happen," Rouhani told Saturday's news conference.
Western diplomats suspect Iran has in the past sent some of its Revolutionary Guards, a hard-line force that works in parallel with the army, to train and advise the Iraqi army or its militia allies.
Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, quoted by Fars news agency, said: "Supporting the Iraqi government and nation does not mean sending troops to Iraq. It means condemning terrorist acts and closing and safeguarding our joint borders."
U.S. officials said there were no contacts going on with Iran over the crisis in Iraq.
Rouhani said he was not aware of any American plans for Iraq or whether Washington wanted to help Baghdad.
"If the Iraqi government and nation ask for our help, we will review it. So far there has not been such a request," he said.
Al Jazeera and wire services