Iran says U.S. drone kills 2 advisers in Iraq; U.S. denies claim

The Associated Press: Iran’s Revolutionary Guard says a U.S. drone strike killed two of its advisers near the Iraqi city of Tikrit, where a major offensive is underway against the Islamic State group, but the U.S. said Monday its coalition conducted no airstrikes in the area during the time of the incident.

U.S. Central Command said it didn’t target the area around Tikrit from March 22 through March 24, the window when the Guard said the two men were killed.

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Is the Shiite revival here?

Ali Mamouri writes: In the book “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future,” Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American researcher on the crises in the Middle East, came to the conclusion in 2006 that the religious struggle resulting from the rise of the Shiite identity in the region would reshape the Middle East. Developments in recent years have proved that this view seems accurate.

Today, Shiite forces are strongly present in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They are united and firmly associated with the Iranian axis. This new situation did not happen by chance or overnight. Rather, it was preceded by many arrangements that Iran has been making for decades.

The sectarian rivalry in the region began with the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when Saudi Arabia and Iran raced to find and endorse revolutionary groups that fought different governments based on Islamic ideology and inspired by the Quranic terms of jihad in the Middle East. These groups include al-Qaeda for the Sunnis and Hezbollah and the Houthi movement for the Shiites. While Saudi Arabia has invested in jihadist organizations in Afghanistan — such as the Afghan Arabs, or the Arab mujahedeen, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — Iran has invested in the Shiite opposition forces in the Arab countries, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hezbollah al-Hejaz in Bahrain and the Badr Brigade in Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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Why Iran’s Supreme Leader wants a nuclear deal

Trita Parsi writes: There are few world leaders as powerful yet mysterious as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Most of what has been written about him in English only adds to the confusion surrounding the man (Akbar Ganji’s writings are a notable exception). The most common misinterpretation of him at the moment is that he is ideologically opposed to cutting a reasonable deal with the United States — the “Great Satan,” as America is known among some Iranian leaders — over his country’s nuclear program. But Khamenei wants a deal perhaps just as much as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is widely credited with being the more moderate force behind the current negotiations. Far from betraying the Iranian Revolution, Khamenei may view the negotiations as helping fulfill its ideals.

It’s clear that Khamenei is deeply suspicious of the United States and skeptical of both its intent and ability to come to terms with Iran. When President Barack Obama first extended a hand to the Iranians in his 2009 Persian New Year greeting, Khamenei immediately shot back. In a lengthy speech from his birth town of Mashhad, Khamenei went over the entire litany of American crimes against Iran — from support for the hated shah (overthrown by Khamenei’s predecessors in the revolution of 1979), to aid to Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran war, to the downing of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, to years of sanctions. He cast doubt on the intentions of the United States, even under its new president. He went on to question Obama’s ability to shift America’s position on Iran. “I would like to say that I do not know who makes decisions for the United States, the president, the Congress, elements behind the scenes?” he asked.

Understanding the depth of this suspicion requires recalling that Khamenei has not merely read about the tortuous history of U.S.-Iran relations. As a close associate of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and a former president of Iran, he was there. He lived through — as a participant, not an observer — every dark chapter he cites in his speeches, from the hostage crisis to the Axis of Evil speech. His skepticism of U.S. intentions, rightly or wrongly, is a product of the four decades of baggage he carries on his shoulders.

Yet, in the end, that’s all he is: a skeptic. He is not an ideological opponent who will undermine, or refuse to accept, any deal struck by Iran’s more moderate negotiators. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s hard-liners show restraint on nuclear talks with U.S.

The New York Times reports: A coterie of Iran’s hard-line Shiite Muslim clerics and Revolutionary Guards commanders is usually vocal on the subject of the Iranian nuclear program, loudly proclaiming the country’s right to pursue its interests and angrily denouncing the United States.

But as the United States and Iran prepare to restart nuclear talks this week, the hard-liners have been keeping a low profile.

“They have been remarkably quiet,” said Nader Karimi Joni, a former member of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary group.

Their silence is a result of state policies intended by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to seriously try to find a solution through negotiations. Ayatollah Khamenei has largely supported the nuclear talks and the Iranian negotiators, whom he has called “good and caring people, who work for the country.”

The restraint by the hard-liners also reflects a general satisfaction, analysts say, with the direction of the talks and the successes Iran is enjoying, extending and deepening its influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s advances create alarm in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf

Ian Black writes: The commanders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have been working overtime recently, flaunting their achievements across the Middle East and flexing muscles as international negotiations over the country’s nuclear programme enter their critical and perhaps final phase.

On Wednesday it was the turn of Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC’s most senior officer. “The Islamic revolution is advancing with good speed, its example being the ever-increasing export of the revolution,” he declared. “Not only Palestine and Lebanon acknowledge the influential role of the Islamic Republic but so do the people of Iraq and Syria. They appreciate the nation of Iran.”

Last month a similarly boastful message was delivered by General Qassem Suleimani, who leads the IRGC’s elite Quds force — and who is regularly photographed leading the fightback of Iraqi Shia miltias against the Sunni jihadis of the Islamic State (Isis) as well as against western and Arab-backed rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad in southern Syria. “Imperialists and Zionists have admitted defeat at the hands of the Islamic Republic and the resistance movement,” Suleimani said.

Iran’s advances are fuelling alarm in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, where Tehran has been a strategic rival since the days of the Shah, and which now, it is said with dismay, in effect controls four Arab capitals – Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut and in the last month Sana’a in Yemen – which is uncomfortably close to home. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s expanding influence in Iraq

Joyce Karam writes: While the invasion in 2003 and the shortsighted policies by the U.S. disbanding the Iraqi army and propping up the sectarian rule of Nouri al-Maliki, opened the door for Iranian meddling and militia-building in Iraq, ISIS has invited a more aggressive role for Iran along the Euphrates.

“Iran has taken full advantage of the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul” says Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland and author of a policy paper on Shiite Jihad. The rise of ISIS as an existential threat to Shiites whom it considers heretics and apostates, drove many in that community to carry arms and defend themselves while the Iraqi state continued to crumble. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s Fatwa last summer “to defend the country, its people, the honor of its citizens, and its sacred places” was exploited to set the stage for the formation of the Popular Mobilization Forces, made up of disciplined Shiite recruits and a much smaller component of Sunni tribal and Kurdish forces.

Smyth sees Iranian influence in funding, training and equipping Shiite militias at an all time high. He estimates the number of Shiite militia fighters in Iraq today between 70,000 [to] 100,000, a volume that “is both astounding and strategic to the way that Iran has constructed them.” The expert sees Iran as player whose influence is only rising in Iraq, “they run ministries in Iraq today with their own security apparatus.” This new dynamic was front and center in appointing Mohammad Ghabban from the Iranian funded militia Badr as the new Iraqi interior minister. [Continue reading…]

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IRGC official: Iran indoctrinating Syria youth

NOW reports: A top Iranian Revolutionary Guards officer boasted about Tehran’s role in Syria and revealed that his country has been indoctrinating youths in the war-torn country to fight under the IRGC.

“The IRGC has begun to establish new religious groups in Syria called ‘Kashab’ among young Alawites, Sunnis, Christians and Ismailis,” Al-Arabiya on Tuesday cited Hussein Hamdani as saying.

These groups aim to carry out what Hamdani called “ideological education” for the “recruitment of teenagers in Syria to fight in militias under [the command] of the IRGC.”

The advisor to the Revolutionary Guards commander-general did not elaborate further on the youth groups, but did boast that Iran had formed 42 brigades and 138 battalions fighting for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.

Hamdani added that the “establishment of the Basij in Syria was one of Iran’s most important achievements in recent years.” [Continue reading…]

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Celebrity status of General Soleimani coincides with rise in Iranian nationalism

Qassem-SuleimaniMahan Abedin writes: His photos are everywhere in the Iranian media and his name is mentioned on a daily basis by the national broadcaster. Major General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), is officially a national hero.

This extreme publicity is all the more surprising in view of Soleimai’s command of the most secretive and sensitive branch of the IRGC. The Quds force is the expeditionary wing of the Revolutionary Guards and spearheads Iran’s engagement with pro-Iranian armies, militias and political factions across the region.

To the outside world, in particular to Iran’s enemies and opponents in the region and beyond, Soleimani is the potent face of Iran’s political and ideological offensive in the Middle East.

This portrait of Soleimani is being increasingly adopted at home as well, fed by a daily diet of the Quds force commander’s exploits on the Iraqi battlefield, most recently in the offensive to re-take Tirkrit from the so-called Islamic State.

Whilst Soleimani’s leading role in Iran’s counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq and Syria is undoubtedly pivotal to the Islamic Republic’s regional policy, there are huge questions marks regarding the extreme publicity that now surrounds him.

One plausible explanation is that Soleimani’s adoption as a national hero heralds a change of political culture in Iran with significant long-term ramifications for the country’s domestic and foreign policy.

Qasem Soleimani’s transformation from a secretive commander to national celebrity is unprecedented in modern Iranian culture, and his enormous popularity notwithstanding, it is not entirely without controversy. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s ‘Supermani': fabled general, Internet sensation

The Los Angeles Times reports: In one image he calmly rubs elbows with Iran’s top leaders. In another, he bestows an avuncular gaze on a gaggle of militia fighters.

No matter where he appears, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds force, remains the stuff of U.S. policymakers’ nightmares: a murky yet seemingly ubiquitous figure with a penchant for turning up in Middle Eastern trouble spots and proxy wars — often at several battlegrounds simultaneously, it would seem, judging by his outsized and at times fictitious presence on the Web and in breathless international press reports.

“Supermani” is the handle one wag has bestowed upon Tehran’s inscrutable point man.

His mission? Thwarting the goals of Washington and its allies at every turn, while adding to the revolutionary glory of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The actual effectiveness of Tehran’s fabled emissary may be open to question. But in cyberspace, Suleimani — with a graying beard, steady mien and passing resemblance to “The Most Interesting Man in the World” of Dos Equis fame — has emerged as a kind of Iranian master manipulator, schemer and super-spy. His presence on any battlefield, according the ever-expanding if often apocryphal legend, is tantamount to victory for fighters fortunate to bask in his presence. [Continue reading…]

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Iran: Israeli air strike killed general advising Syrian government forces

McClatchy: Iran said Monday that a general in its elite Revolutionary Guards who’d been sent to Syria to help that country battle rebels died in an Israeli air strike on Sunday, raising tensions and heightening expectations of possible retaliation.

A statement on the website of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards said that Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi was killed when Israeli planes bombed a convoy in southern Syria, where troops loyal to President Bashar Assad have been fighting rebels that include al Qaida’s Nusra Front.

The statement said Allahdadi had been helping the Syrian government “confront the takfiri Salafist terrorists,” using religious terms to refer to the Sunni Muslim rebels who’ve been trying to topple Assad for nearly four years.

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Deaths in Iraq show two sides of Iran’s role in sectarian conflict

The Guardian reports: Thousands of Revolutionary Guards gathered in Tehran on Sunday for the funeral of Iranian Brigadier General Hamid Taqavi, who was reportedly killed by a sniper while organising the defence of the Iraqi city of Samarra against Islamic State (Isis) militants.

According to Fars News, Iran’s top security official Ali Shamkhani told mourners that if “people like Taqavi do not shed their blood in Samarra, then we would shed our blood [within Iran] in Sistan [-Baluchestan], [East and West] Azerbaijan [provinces], Shiraz and Esfahan [to defend the country]”.

Mehr News reported the funeral was also attended by General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds brigade, the overseas arm of the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), which has been active in Iraq. The Iranian Labour News Agency relayed condolences from Ali Larijani, the parliamentary speaker, “to the Lord of the Age [the 12th Shia Imam, believed to be in occultation], the Supreme Leader, the honourable Iranian nation, his comrades and respected and patient family members.”

Taqavi, 55, was the most senior Iranian military commander killed in Iraq, where Tehran calls its role “advisory” in assisting the Iraqi army, Kurdish forces and Shia militias against Isis. While Taqavi’s funeral illustrated the clear official Iranian commitment to its armed forces, the murkier dimensions of Tehran’s growing role in the brutal sectarian conflict engulfing Iraq and Syria were highlighted by the death of Wathiq al-Battat, an Iraqi militant with long links to Iran and leader of one of Iraq’s several Shia militias.

The Mukhtar Army, the Iraqi militia, recently announced its leader Wathiq al-Battat had been killed in Diyala province. Battat had been a player in the shady war between Iraqi Shia militias and the Sunni militants of Isis. [Continue reading…]

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How ISIS has advanced Iran’s interests in Iraq

Ali Hashem writes: For years, Iraqi Shiites have been immune to the Iranian copy of Shiism; the chemistry didn’t work. Iranians strained for years during the post-Saddam Hussein era to establish a solid footprint, but they always failed to reach their goals due to differences in mentality, ethnicity, the approach to political Islam and the de facto hostility that ruled the relationship between both nations. That is not to say Iran wasn’t influential, but that it failed all this time to win the hearts and minds of its fellow Shiites.

Iran backed and financed several groups in Iraq, and was the main ally of the former prime minister and now vice president, Nouri al-Maliki, and his Dawa party. The cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was close to them, but not close enough to be their man in Iraq; he had his own way of thinking that agrees and deviates according to his interests. The same applies to many other prominent Iraqi leaders. That’s why there was no Iraqi copy of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. This was until the Islamic State (IS) led by self-titled Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi invaded Mosul and reached only tens of meters from the shrine of the two Askari Imams in Samarra, north of Baghdad.

“That was another day,” an Iranian official with deep understanding of what’s going on in Iraq told me. “Hajj Qasem Soleimani [Quds Force commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] and his men showed that Iran cares for Iraq as a nation. Our iconic commander himself went there and fought with the Iraqi volunteers who celebrated his presence,” the official said. “If it wasn’t for Hajj Qasem and his men, Daesh [IS] [would be] today destroying the shrines of the household of the Prophet Muhammad, and that’s why today is another day.” [Continue reading…]

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Iran uses China bank to transfer funds to Quds-linked companies

Reuters reports: There is no trace of Shenzhen Lanhao Days Electronic Technology Co Ltd at its listed address in the beige and pink-tiled “Fragrant Villa” apartment complex in this southern Chinese city. The building’s managers say they’ve never heard of it.

But a Western intelligence report reviewed by Reuters says Shenzhen Lanhao is one of several companies in China that receives money from Iran through a Chinese bank. Such transfers help to finance international operations of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force, the report said.

The Quds provides arms, aid and training for pro-Iranian militant groups in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Shi’ite Muslim militias in Iraq. They have also armed and trained government forces in Syria’s civil war in violation of a U.N. arms embargo, U.S. and European officials say. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. ties to terrorism in Iran

The New York Times reports: After a car bombing in southeastern Iran killed 11 Revolutionary Guard members in 2007, a C.I.A. officer noticed something surprising in the agency’s files: an intelligence report, filed ahead of the bombing, that had warned that something big was about to happen in Iran.

Though the report had provided few specifics, the C.I.A. officer realized it meant that the United States had known in advance that a Sunni terrorist group called Jundallah was planning an operation inside Shiite-dominated Iran, two former American officials familiar with the matter recalled. Just as surprising was the source of the report. It had originated in Newark, with a detective for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The Port Authority police are responsible for patrolling bridges and tunnels and issuing airport parking tickets. But the detective, a hard-charging and occasionally brusque former ironworker named Thomas McHale, was also a member of an F.B.I. counterterrorism task force. He had traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan and developed informants inside Jundallah’s leadership, who then came under the joint supervision of the F.B.I. and C.I.A.

Reading the report, the C.I.A. officer became increasingly concerned. Agency lawyers he consulted concluded that using Islamic militants to gather intelligence — and obtaining information about attacks ahead of time — could suggest tacit American support for terrorism. Without specific approval from the president, the lawyers said, that could represent an unauthorized covert action program. The C.I.A. ended its involvement with Mr. McHale’s informants.

Despite the C.I.A.’s concerns, American officials continued to obtain intelligence from inside Jundallah, first through the F.B.I., and then the Pentagon. Contacts with informants did not end when Jundallah’s attacks led to the deaths of Iranian civilians, or when the State Department designated it a terrorist organization. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s ‘shadow commander’ Major General Qassem Suleimani steps into the light

The Atlantic reports: On October 16, Iran’s Fars news agency proclaimed the “magnificent role of General Suleimani in the fight against the terrorists of Daesh,” using an alternative acronym for ISIS.

Fars, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, boasted that The Guardian had noted the role of Major General Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds Force — the branch of the Revolutionary Guards responsible for overseas operations — in combating Islamic State militants.

“According to this publication,” Fars enthused, “General Suleimani is playing a key role in the fight against the Islamic State group.”

It is no coincidence that Fars dedicated a whole news article to the fact that an “English newspaper” had commented on Suleimani’s presence in Iraq. Iran has made a concerted effort in recent weeks to show the world that Suleimani — and by extension, the Quds Force — is bolstering Shiite militias against ISIS.

Numerous photographs have circulated on social media and in Iran’s state press showing Suleimani in Iraq and Syria. They are notable largely because until now, Suleimani has been an elusive figure, a subject of great media interest and speculation but also great secrecy. Suleimani’s name has appeared frequently in the Western press, but usually accompanied by the description “shadowy,” as in “shadowy figure,” or even “Shadow Commander.”

Yet this month, the hitherto rarely glimpsed Suleimani has been snapped in Irbil, grinning with Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters; meeting with a top Shiite commander, Mohammad Kazmi, at the Quds Force headquarters in Iraq; and hanging out with Shiite militias while wearing a reversed baseball cap and Palestinian keffiyeh: [Continue reading…]

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The anti-ISIS campaign may lead to an Assad exit

Michael Young writes: If Iran and Hezbollah appear worried about the attacks being directed by the United States and its allies against the Islamic State, or ISIS, the reason is simple. They realize that the logical outcome of military operations in Syria is likely to be pressure for a political solution that leads to Bashar al-Assad’s departure.

The connection between the anti-ISIS campaign and the Syrian conflict was made on Thursday at a Friends of Syria foreign ministers’ meeting in New York. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal expressed it succinctly: “For as long as the strife in Syria continues, the growth of extremist groups will continue.”

Applying the same logic as in Iraq, the Americans are also likely to soon conclude that only a more inclusive government in Syria can consolidate the gains made against ISIS. In Iraq, the aim was to bring Sunnis into the political process, in the belief that they are necessary to defeating ISIS, and to do so the Obama administration helped remove Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Why should Syria be any different?

Perhaps what disturbs Iran and Hezbollah the most is that their strategy in both Iraq and Syria is crumbling. When Mosul fell to ISIS, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, was asked what was to be done. “We must rely on Shiite solidarity,” Suleimani allegedly replied.

That was decidedly not the solution that the United States pursued, nor one that would have allowed the Iraqi government to prevail over ISIS. If anything, Shiite solidarity would only have solidified the Iraqi divide, allowing ISIS, with its core of Saddam-era officers, to reinforce its hold over Sunni areas. [Continue reading…]

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Iraq’s Shiite militias are becoming as great a danger as ISIS

Phillip Smyth writes: Armed men posing with severed heads, massacres of mosque-goers during Friday prayers, massive reliance on transnational jihadists — these are crimes that are usually associated with the Islamic State (IS). However, they’re also the actions of some of Iraq’s growing Shiite militia organizations, which are playing an increasingly prominent role in fighting the Sunni jihadists. These groups, many of which have deep ideological and organizational links to Iran, are sweeping away what is left of any notion of the Baghdad government’s authority — and represent a massive challenge to President Barack Obama’s stated goal of working with an inclusive Iraqi government to push back IS.

Over 50 Shiite militias are now recruiting and fighting in Iraq. These groups are actively recruiting — drawing potential soldiers away from the Iraqi army and police and bringing fighters into highly ideological, anti-American, and rabidly sectarian organizations. Many of these trainees are not simply being used to push back Sunni jihadists, but in many cases form a rear guard used to control districts that are supposedly under Baghdad’s control.

Shiite militias have embedded themselves within the structures of the Iraqi government, which has become far too reliant on their power to contemplate cracking down on them. Together, they have committed horrifying human rights abuses: In early June, Shiite militias, along with Iraqi security forces, reportedly executed around 255 prisoners, including children. An Amnesty International report from June detailed how Shiite militias regularly carried out extrajudicial summary executions, and reported that dozens of Sunni prisoners were killed in government buildings. [Continue reading…]

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Iran leader says U.S. anti-ISIS effort ‘pointless’

Bloomberg reports: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said a U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State is “pointless,” as members of the alliance met today to coordinate efforts against the militant group.

“Actions that were carried out in Iraq and broke the back of Islamic State were not the deed of Americans but those of the army and people of Iraq,” Khamenei said today in comments on his official website. He said the coalition is “pointless, superficial and has an agenda.”

While U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State targets helped Kurdish and government forces recapture some of the territory lost to the al-Qaeda breakaway group, Iranian-backed militias have also aided the fight against the Sunni extremists. [Continue reading…]

AFP reports: British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond on Monday urged Iran to cooperate with an international coalition to fight jihadists in Iraq even if Tehran did not join the group.

Hammond made the call in Paris after a major conference on Iraq as Iran refused to join an anti-jihadist coalition.

“It was always unlikely that Iran would become a fully-fledged member of the coalition but I think we should continue to hope that Iran will align itself broadly with the direction that the coalition is going,” Hammond told reporters.

He also said he hoped Iran would be “cooperative with the plans that the coalition is putting in place, if not actively a part of the coalition.” [Continue reading…]

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