WASHINGTON -- The U.S. would be happy to have Iran's help in fighting the Islamic State, Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday in response to the news, first broken by The Huffington Post Monday night, that the U.S. has been aware of Iranian airstrikes in Iraq since at least last week.
"I think it’s self-evident that if Iran is taking on ISIL in some particular place and it’s confined to taking on ISIL and it has an impact, it’s going to be –- the net effect is positive," Kerry, using the administration's preferred name for the organization, said in remarks following meetings with representatives of other nations in Brussels.
He emphasized that the U.S. was not cooperating with Iran, which is a top regional rival for most U.S. Middle Eastern allies and has not had diplomatic relations with Washington since 1979.
In Washington on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest also denied any cooperation between the two countries. But he said the administration would continue to evaluate that stance.
While Kerry said he could not confirm or deny reports about the Iranian bombing, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday there was no reason to believe the reports that have emerged since The Huffington Post's original story are untrue. An Iranian politician and other U.S. officials have since confirmed the Iranian bombing as well.
Hamid Reza Taraghi, a political figure considered close to Iran's president and to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told The New York Times Iran had established a "buffer zone" in Iraq's eastern Diyala province, which the Iraqi government -- led by an Iran-friendly Shiite political party -- has accepted.
On Monday, a U.S. defense official confirmed to HuffPost that claims made over the weekend by British defense firm IHS Jane's and Israeli newspaper Haaretz about Iran conducting airstrikes in Iraq were true. The official said he could only provide confirmation on the bombing on the condition of anonymity.
The firm and the newspaper had reached their conclusions separately by reviewing recent Al Jazeera footage which showed a U.S.-made fighter jet bombing Iraq. Noting that only Iran and Turkey, a U.S. ally which has yet to directly fight the Islamic State, still operate that model of fighter plane, they said it had to have belonged to Iran.
The U.S. defense official told The Huffington Post he believed Iran would continue to target the Islamic State as long as the Sunni extremist group neared the Iranian border or threatened Shiite holy shrines in Iraq -- a top concern for Iran because it is the most powerful Shiite power in the Middle East.
He said the U.S. would not directly push back against the Iranian involvement unless it threatened U.S. forces in Iraq, whose number is set to double.
Kerry and Kirby both said the responsibility for preventing encounters between U.S. and Iranian bombers over Iraq belonged to the Iraqi government.
"We're there at the invitation of the Iraqi government, so it's not for us to say what they should allow, what they shouldn't allow," the defense official had told The Huffington Post on Monday. "It's their country."
Iran is perhaps the central player in the current crisis in the Middle East. U.S. officials told The Huffington Post last month that because of Iran's deep involvement in the countries where a U.S.-led coalition is now attacking the Islamic State, the Obama administration is loath to take actions that could anger Tehran.
But while the U.S. and Iran may share a common threat in the Islamic State -- as President Barack Obama emphasized in an October letter to Iran's supreme leader -- and are both invested in a process of diplomacy around Iran's nuclear program, they are not working to the same ends in those countries or across the region.
Both do seek to shore up the Iraqi government. Yet Iran is committed to propping up the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad, an embattled and controversial ruler who leads a regime in which the U.S. says it has lost faith. Iran also support groups unfriendly to the U.S. in Lebanon, and reportedly in Yemen as well. And the ambitious Islamic Republic remains a major concern for allies like Israel, whose prime minister bluntly reminded Americans yet again last month not to forget that "Iran is not your friend."