Iranian fighter jets struck Islamic State (IS) militants in eastern Iraq in recent days, the Pentagon said on Tuesday, signaling Tehran’s determination to confront the extremist group and Washington’s tacit partnership with archrival Iran.
The air raids marked an escalation in Iran’s role in a conflict that has seen Tehran and Washington set aside their customary hostility to battle a common enemy in the IS group, which both governments view as a dangerous threat.
“We have indications that they did indeed fly air strikes with F-4 Phantoms in the past several days,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters.
His comments came days after al-Jazeera ran footage of what appeared to be an F-4 fighter similar to those used by the Iranian air force attacking targets in Iraq’s eastern Diyala Province.
Iranian forces have been active on the ground in Iraq assisting Shiite militia and Baghdad government units, but this was the first time the US has confirmed that the Iranian air force is conducting strikes against the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Kirby said Washington is not coordinating with Iranian forces and that it was up to the Iraqi government to oversee military flights by different countries.
“We are flying missions over Iraq. We coordinate with the Iraqi government as we conduct those. It’s up to the Iraqi government to deconflict that air space,” Kirby told reporters. “Nothing has changed about our policy of not coordinating military activity with the Iranians.”
Even if there is no direct communication between the two countries’ forces, the US likely are aware of and easily monitor flights over Iraq by Iran’s less sophisticated air fleet, which uses a fighter jet that dates to the Vietnam War.
A US air command center in Qatar coordinates US fighters, bombers, drones and surveillance aircraft flying round-the-clock missions over Iraq along with other coalition warplanes from European governments, as well as Australia and Canada.
IS’ onslaught in Iraq has forged an unlikely alignment between Iran and the US, which have been locked in a cold war for more than three decades.
The fight against the Sunni extremists has come amid a US diplomatic drive to agree a deal with Iran over its nuclear program and officials acknowledge the two sides have discussed the war in Iraq on the margins of the nuclear talks.
Yet the two rivals remain deeply opposed over Syria, with Iran providing crucial military backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Washington has vowed to train a moderate rebel force to eventually confront the Damascus regime.
Analysts and former US officials say neither side appears ready to pursue elaborate cooperation for military operations in Iraq, but there appears to be some level of tactical communication — at least to avoid accidents.
As the two governments expand their military activity in Iraq, there is a growing risk of potential crossed signals or conflict, since Washington and Tehran remain bitter enemies. Shiite-ruled Iran has close ties to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, and Tehran quickly came to the Iraqi government’s aid after IS overran Iraqi army units in western and northern Iraq earlier this year.
Iran has also provided Sukhoi Su-25 aircraft to Iraq amid widespread speculation that the planes are flown by Iranian pilots.
Iranian weapons have made their way to Shiite fighters in Iraq, including 12.7mm rifles designed to penetrate armored vehicles and multiple rocket launchers, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly reported.
The commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Major General Qassem Suleimani, led a counterattack in Iraq over the summer that pushed back IS militants from a key route leading from Samarra to Baghdad, according to Lebanon’s Shiite movement Hezbollah.
Iran has declined to join the US-led coalition against IS and has publicly dismissed the air war, but Tehran’s Iraqi allies have benefited from the strikes against the militants.