By Kristina Wong and Ian Swanson - 06/16/14 01:59 PM EDT
The Obama administration on Monday expressed a willingness to work with longtime enemy Iran in response to the Sunni militant offensive in Iraq.
The comments from Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted the administration's struggles to zero in on a policy response to Iraq, where the central government appears to be crumbling in the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) advance.
“Let's see what Iran might or might not be willing to do before we start making any pronouncements,” Kerry told Yahoo News. “I think we are open to any constructive process here that can minimize the violence, hold Iraq together, the integrity of the country and eliminate the presence of outside terrorist forces.”
Later, a senior State Department official said the issue had been raised on the margins of nuclear talks with Iran in Geneva.
"The issue did come up briefly with Iran on the margins of the P5+1 in Vienna today, separate from our trilateral meeting," the official said.
Earlier, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the issue would be raised by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns on the margins of the nuclear talks on Wednesday.
Psaki said the U.S is open to a “political” conversation about the situation in Iran but ruled out the possibility that Washington could coordinate or cooperate with Tehran militarily. She added that Iran should not send troops over its border.
“We don’t feel it’s useful for the Iraqis to rely on the capacity of Iran’s security forces,” Psaki said.
The takeover of the northern city of Taj Afar continues gains by ISIS, which grew out of the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq, a terrorist group the United States fought during the Iraq war.
It has raised worries in Washington about the fall of Baghdad, though Kerry on Monday said he didn’t believe that was imminent.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has signaled he is open to cooperating with the U.S. to help Iraq.
“When the U.S. takes action, then one can think about cooperation,” Rouhani said, according to The Wall Street Journal. “Until today, no specific request for help has been demanded. But we are ready to help within international law.”
It is unclear whether Iran has already sent troops to Iraq to help the crumbling government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. ISIS, a Sunni Muslim group, is primarily fighting Shiite Muslims, and there were unconfirmed reports over the weekend of mass executions of prisoners.
Al-Maliki’s government, like the government in Tehran, is majority Shiite.
Kerry’s comments sparked an immediate push-back, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) arguing it would increase Tehran’s influence in Iraq and turn off U.S. allies.
“It would be the height of folly to believe that the Iranian regime can be our partner in managing the deteriorating security situation in Iraq,” McCain said in a statement.
“The reality is, U.S. and Iranian interests and goals do not align in Iraq, and greater Iranian intervention would only make the situation dramatically worse,” he added.
Separately, the Israel Project, a pro-Israel group, sent reporters a timeline highlighting instances of Iran’s government aiding Shiite militants in Iraq to the detriment of U.S. policy.
The group argued that Iran was selling arms and ammunition to Iraq in violation of international trade laws as recently as February, and said analysts found Iran was funneling weapons to Shiite militant groups destabilizing Iraq.
But some Republicans have expressed support for working with Iran.
“The Iranians can provide some assets to make sure Baghdad doesn’t fall,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Sunday on CNN’s "State of the Union." He said the U.S. needed to “coordinate” with Iran.
President Obama is considering options for responding to the offensive, but has said he will not use ground troops. Obama is believed to be considering air strikes and drone strikes, as well as providing further arms to Iraq’s government.
But those options are also controversial with Republicans and Democrats alike in Congress.
Critics have long questioned whether al-Maliki is a pawn of Iran, and Kerry on Monday cautioned that any Iranian involvement would need to “respect the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq.”
The secretary of State said he does not believe Iranian troops have crossed the border into Iraq.
Mario Trujillo contributed to this story.
— This story was posted at 9:18 a.m. and updated at 6:51 p.m.