MESOP REPORT : MULLAH JOHN KERRY – State Dept scrambles to clarify Kerry comments floating cooperation with Iran over Iraq sectarian violence

A Monday morning interview between Yahoo! News and Secretary of State John Kerry generated a firestorm of controversy – along with a series of retractions and clarifications from various Obama administration officials – after Kerry seemed to imply to interviewer Katie Couric that he was open to cooperating militarily with Iran to halt an ongoing Iraqi offensive by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). Asked whether he could see the U.S. “cooperating with Iran militarily” against the Al Qaeda offshoot, Kerry responded “I wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive to” a range of possibilities and conditions. His remarks came a few days after murmurs started emerging in corners of the foreign policy community – and more pointedly from the State Department – suggesting that the U.S. might benefit by cooperating with Iran in suppressing ISIS.

The policy argument has a long pedigree stretching back to the immediate post-Sept. 11 era, but had fallen out of use after a decade of intelligence revealed that Iran had actively destabilized Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently the State Department’s 2014 country-by-country terrorism report had assessed that “despite its pledge to support Iraq’s stabilization, Iran trained, funded, and provided guidance to Iraqi Shia militant groups” and further emphasized that Iran was even facilitating the transit of Sunni jihadists. Nonetheless over the weekend leaks started to emerge that Washington would indeed seek to engage Tehran on sectarian violence in Iraq. Analysts were blunt with their criticism. Washington Institute Managing Director Michael Singh described the move as “misguided” and later expanded that “more Iranian involvement will inflame sectarian tensions,” declaring that the U.S. needed “less Iranian involvement in regional conflicts, not more.” Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Michael Doran was even harsher, emphasizing on a policy level that U.S. intelligence had linked Iran to ISIS and on a geopolitical level that engagement risked abandoning long-time U.S. allies. The Pentagon quickly and flatly denied the possibility, with Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby telling journalists “there is absolutely no intention and no plan to coordinate military activity between the United States and Iran … there are no plans to have consultations with Iran about military activities in Iraq.” By the early afternoon State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki was walking back some of Kerry’s statements, declaring that “we’re not talking about coordinating any military action in Iraq with Iran.” By the middle of the afternoon veteran Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee dryly noted that while Kerry did not rule out U.S.-Iran military cooperation, “everyone else in Washington does.”