Kerry: We may welcome Iraq's new Iranian overlords, or something; Update: White House reverses course

The US and Iran could team up to legitimize an Iranian military presence in Iraq, Secretary of State John Kerry told Katie Couric earlier today.  That’s a far cry from American policy over the past four decades, and a blow to US allies in the region, who have to be wondering just what Washington is thinking. Oliver Knox reports from the Couric interview, in which Kerry said the Obama administration would not rule anything out to prevent Iraq from being ripped apart:

“This is a challenge to the stability of the region. It is obviously an existential challenge to Iraq itself. This is a terrorist group,” Kerry told Yahoo News Global Anchor Katie Couric in an exclusive interview.

Prodded on whether the United States would consider cooperating militarily with Iran, Kerry replied: “Let’s see what Iran might or might not be willing to do before we start making any pronouncements.”

But “I think we are open to any constructive process here that could minimize the violence, hold Iraq together, the integrity of the country and eliminate the presence of outside terrorist forces that are ripping it apart,” the top U.S. diplomat told Couric.

“I wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive to providing real stability, a respect for the (Iraqi) constitution, a respect for the election process, and a respect for the Iraqi people to form a government that represents all of the interests of Iraq — not one sectarian group over another,” he said. …

Kerry said Obama was giving “a very thorough vetting of every option that is available,” including drone strikes, and underlined that “we are deeply committed to the integrity of Iraq as a country.”

Note that “wouldn’t rule anything out” seems to exclude the introduction of American troops, which Obama ruled out on Friday (and which couldn’t arrive in time to save Baghdad on its own anyway). Nor are manned air attacks an option either, according to multiple reports over the last few days, so there actually seems to be quite a bit that’s being “ruled out” when it comes to a response to the ISIS penetration after all.

ABC notes that Iran is also open to legitimizing a military presence in Iraq, to the great shock of no one, and that the US isn’t even going to make it a trading point in nuclear negotiations:

Iran’s  Iranian President Hassan said over the weekend that Iran is willing to help Iraq if asked and that is also open to cooperating with the U.S. on Iraq.

“Whenever the United States makes a move on the ISIS, then we can think about cooperation with them in Iraq,” Rouhani said over the weekend. …

A senior administration official told reporters earlier today that Iraq will not factor into nuclear negotiations with Iran in Vienna this week, but that Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns could discuss a political solution in Iraq with his Iranian counterparts on the sidelines of those talks.

It’s a strange interview anyway, offered up this morning on Yahoo News. It starts off with a lengthy intro that practically bathes Kerry in positive spin, lamenting the “smear campaign” of the Swift Boat veterans and providing Kerry’s medal list without acknowledging what the criticisms of Kerry actually involved — his own smear campaign in the early 1970s against his fellow Vietnam veterans, plus some long-held disputes about his service record. It’s practically a campaign introduction without a single reference to anything of substance facing Kerry in his current job until the interview actually gets underway.

Even then, Kerry insists that the issue in Iraq isn’t entirely about terrorism, but also resentment because the balance of power swung in the Shi’ites’ favor at the expense of the Sunnis after the US established a democratic republic in the post-Saddam Hussein period. Of course, that happened because Shi’ites are the majority in Iraq, while the Sunnis are a small minority that only held power because of Hussein’s dictatorship. What else did anyone expect from a majority Shi’ite nation? Besides, while Nouri al-Maliki’s political incompetence is undeniably an issue, it’s hardly the acute issue at the moment.

And if the Obama administration foresaw that problem — which was already manifestly evident by 2009 — why didn’t they negotiate a substantial residual force to give the US leverage with Maliki, as well as give some measure of confidence to our Sunni tribal allies from the surge?

In fact, the acute issue for Kerry and this interview isn’t Iraq, or terrorism, or Iran either. It’s, um, the “Our Ocean” conference at the State Department, which Kerry calls “a very, very important conference”:

“If we do nothing, and it turns out that the critics and the naysayers and the members of the Flat Earth Society, if it turns out that they’re wrong, then we are risking nothing less than the future of the entire planet,” Kerry said.

Kerry’s push on oceans, (and climate change generally) will test the Obama administration’s ability to set the agenda at a time when headline-grabbing crises – Iraq, Ukraine, Nigeria -dominate the discussion of world affairs.

It certainly provides a clear view of the administration’s priorities, and what it views as an acute crisis.

Update: Fred Kagan explains why allying with Iran is exactly the wrong strategy:

That alternative is to act boldly and decisively to help stop the advance of the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—without empowering Iran. This would mean pursuing a strategy in Iraq (and in Syria) that works to empower moderate Sunni and Shi’a without taking sectarian sides. This would mean aiming at the expulsion of foreign fighters, both al Qaeda terrorists and Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah regular and special forces, from Iraq.

This would require a willingness to send American forces back to Iraq. It would mean not merely conducting U.S. air strikes, but also accompanying those strikes with special operators, and perhaps regular U.S. military units, on the ground. This is the only chance we have to persuade Iraq’s Sunni Arabs that they have an alternative to joining up with al Qaeda or being at the mercy of government-backed and Iranian-backed death squads, and that we have not thrown in with the Iranians. It is also the only way to regain influence with the Iraqi government and to stabilize the Iraqi Security Forces on terms that would allow us to demand the demobilization of Shi’a militias and to move to limit Iranian influence and to create bargaining chips with Iran to insist on the withdrawal of their forces if and when the situation stabilizes.

This path won’t be easy, but the alternatives are much worse. Doing nothing means we will face a full-scale sectarian war—Syria on steroids—with millions of refugees and tens or hundreds of thousands more dead, along with a massive expansion of Iranian control into southern Iraq and an al Qaeda safe haven stretching from the Tigris to the middle of Syria.

Throwing our weight behind Iran in the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq, as some are suggesting, would make things even worse. Conducting U.S. airstrikes without deploying American special operators or other ground forces would in effect make the U.S. Iran’s air force. Such an approach would be extremely shortsighted. The al Qaeda threat in Iraq is great, and the U.S. must take action against it. But backing the Iranians means backing the Shi’a militias that have been the principal drivers of sectarian warfare, to say nothing of turning our backs on the moderates on both sides who are suffering the most. Allowing Iran to in effect extend its border several hundred kilometers to the west with actual troop deployments would be a strategic disaster. In addition, the U.S. would be perceived as becoming the ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran against all of the forces of the Arab and Sunni world, conceding Syria to the Iranian-backed Bashir al-Assad, and accepting the emergence of an Iranian hegemony soon to be backed by nuclear weapons. And at the end of the day, Iran is not going to be able to take over the Sunni areas of Iraq—so we would end up both strengthening Iran and not defeating ISIS.

Update: Oh, and there’s this too:

Not just cooperation, but a de facto military alliance.

Update 2:43 pm ET: The White House just reversed course on Kerry:

Does this White House bother to consult with its Secretary of State, or vice versa?

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David Strom 8:41 PM on January 30, 2023