By Jason Szep and Mehrdad Balali
IRAN’S supreme leader said on Monday he had personally rejected an offer from the United States for talks to fight Islamic State, an apparent blow to Washington’s efforts to build a military coalition to fight militants in both Iraq and Syria.
World powers meeting in Paris gave public backing to military action to fight Islamic State fighters in Iraq. France sent jets on a reconnaissance mission to Iraq, a step towards becoming the first ally to join the U.S.-led air campaign there.
But Iran, the principal ally of Islamic State’s main foes in both Iraq and Syria, was not invited to the Paris meeting. The countries that did attend – while supporting action in Iraq – made no mention at all of Syria, where U.S. diplomats face a far tougher task building an alliance for action.
Washington has been trying to build a coalition to fight Islamic State since last week when President Barack Obama pledged to destroy the militant group on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
That means plunging into two civil wars in which nearly every country in the Middle East already has a stake. And it also puts Washington on the same side as Tehran, its bitter enemy since the Islamic revolution of 1979.
In a rare direct intervention into diplomacy, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Washington had reached out through the Iranian embassy in Baghdad, requesting a meeting to discuss cooperation against Islamic State.
Khamenei said that some Iranian officials had welcomed the contacts, but he had personally vetoed them.
“I saw no point in cooperating with a country whose hands are dirty and intentions murky,” the Iranian leader said in quotes carried on state news agency IRNA. He accused Washington of “lying” by saying it had excluded Iran from its coalition, saying it was Iran that had refused to participate.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was “not cooperating with Iran”, but declined to be drawn on whether it had reached out through the embassy in Baghdad for talks.
“I am not going to get into a back and forth,” he said. “I don’t think that’s constructive, frankly.”
Islamic State fighters, known for beheading their enemies or captives, raised the stakes for the West by cutting off the heads of two Americans and a Briton in videos posted on the Internet which showed the prisoners bound in orange jumpsuits.
French officials said they had hoped to invite Iran to Monday’s conference but Arab countries had blocked the move.
“We wanted a consensus among countries over Iran’s attendance, but in the end it was more important to have certain Arab states than Iran,” a French diplomat said.
Calling the decision regrettable, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said Baghdad had wanted Iran to attend.
At Monday’s international conference in Paris, the five U.N. Security Council permanent members, Turkey, European and Arab states and representatives of the EU, Arab League and United Nations all pledged to help Baghdad fight Islamic State.
“All participants underscored the urgent need to remove Daesh from the regions in which it has established itself in Iraq,” said a statement after the talks. Daesh is an Arabic acronym for the group which now calls itself Islamic State.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said French aircraft would begin reconnaissance flights over Iraq. A French official said two Rafale fighters and a refuelling aircraft had set off.
“The throat-slitters of Daesh – that’s what I’m calling them – tell the whole world ‘Either you’re with us or we kill you’. When one is faced with such a group there is no other attitude than to defend yourself,” Fabius said at the end of the talks.
Monday’s conference was an important vote of confidence for the new Iraqi government formed last week, led by a member of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and also including minority Sunnis and Kurds in important jobs.
Iraq’s allies hope Abadi will prove a more consensual leader than his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite whose policies alienated many Sunnis, and that the new government will win back support from Sunnis who had backed the Islamic State’s revolt.
Syria, however, is a much trickier case. In a three-year civil war, Islamic State has emerged as one of the most powerful Sunni groups battling against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, a member of a Shi’ite-derived sect.
Washington and its allies remain hostile to Assad, which means any bombing is likely to take place without permission of the Damascus government. Russia, which backs Assad, says bombing would be illegal without a resolution at the U.N. Security Council, where it has a veto.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Paris that Moscow was already providing military assistance to both Iraq and Syria, suggesting Western countries were guilty of a double standard by helping Assad’s foes.
“Terrorists can’t be good or bad. We must be consistent and not involve our personal political projects, not prioritise them over the general goal of fighting terrorism.”