Washington and Tehran are locked in tough negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. But the two adversaries have been fighting parallel campaigns on the same side in Iraq to defend the Shiite-dominated government — and the region’s Kurds — from IS terrorists who seized a large section of the country.
It has long been known that Iranian troops and advisers have been fighting alongside Iraqi forces, but until this week there had been no confirmation of Iranian air activity. The timing and nature of the strikes are not clear, but a senior U.S. official said they occurred in Diyala province, which extends from northeast Baghdad to the Iranian border. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose that information.
The Qatari-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera filmed a jet flying over Iraq on Nov. 30 that was identified by Jane’s Defence Weekly as an American-made F-4 Phantom. The Phantom, a twin-engine fighter bomber that was sold to Iran’s U.S.-backed Shah in the 1970s, was last produced by McDonnell Aircraft Corp. in 1981.
Iran in the 1980s fought a brutal, ultimately stalemated war with Iraq when that country was led by Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-controlled Baath Party. But the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam left an Iraqi government closely aligned with Iran. A majority of Iraqis are Shiite, as are most Iranians. The Islamic State group, which also controls parts of Syria, is led by Sunni extremists and has attracted many Sunnis who felt disenfranchised by Baghdad.
In public, U.S. officials have walked a careful line over the strikes, while Iranian officials have flatly denied them. Neither side has an interest in appearing to cooperate with the other. America’s Arab allies in the fight against the Islamic State, including Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Qatar, would not want to be seen as fighting alongside Shiite Iran against a group of Sunnis.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said Tuesday he had seen “nothing that would dispute” that Iran has carried out airstrikes in eastern Iraq. The U.S. was “not taking a position” on the strikes, he said.