In Depth

Iran and US: phantom allies in the war against IS

The two nations are far from being friends, but Iran’s bombing of IS points to ‘undeclared tolerance’

Columnist Robert Fox

Iranian F4 Phantom jets have been spotted bombing Islamic State positions in Diyala, eastern Iraq, over the past week – so much has been confirmed today by the US and the government of Qatar.

The US claims there has been no “coordination” between its forces and Iran – but it is inconceivable that the ancient but still capable Iranian fighter-bombers have not been operating without prior knowledge and tacit clearance by the local US command in the region. 

The arrival of the Iranian Phantoms in the battle with IS marks a new phase of a new relationship based on undeclared tolerance between Tehran and Washington. 

The phraseology of the official US military spokesman on operations over Iraq and Syria, Rear Admiral John Kirby, would make a Byzantine theologian blush. 

“We have indications that they did indeed fly air strikes with F4 Phantoms in the past several days,” he told journalists in the past few hours. “We are flying missions over Iraq; we coordinate with the Iraqi government as we conduct those.  It’s up to the Iraqi government to de-conflict that airspace.”

This is extreme tactical economy with the facts. The air traffic regime in Baghdad must be run under American tutelage, and possibly direct supervision. Secondly, American air and ground forces would have to calibrate their IFF equipment (Identification Friend or Foe) to avoid shooting down the Iranian planes. So the Americans must know, both in the region, and back at the NSA in Washington.

It helps that the Iranian F4 Phantoms were bought from America during the reign of the Shah. Old but still potent, they were inherited by the Ayatollah’s air force. They still have five squadrons of the fighter-bombers in service, according to the Military Balance published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Another heirloom from the Shah’s regime is the nuclear programme. Implicit in his plan was the twin-track approach leading to both civil and military use. 

This is another area in which America's undeclared tolerance appears to be alive and well – especially after the decision to extend the deadline for a definitive settlement on Iran’s uranium enrichment programme and the future of the Iranian nuclear industry.

Once the deadline for settlement, set for 24 November at a summit in Vienna, could not be met, it was agreed to meet again next June to thrash the matter out again. This brought cries of protest about letting Iran off the hook by such diverse bedfellows as Israel, the hardline Republicans in Washington, and the conservative Arab states of the Gulf led by Saudi Arabia.

But to agree to keep talking, and to agree not to fall out terminally at this stage, seems to suit the Obama administration and the regime of Ayatollah Khamenei just fine. 

It also speaks highly of the subtle diplomatic skills of John Kerry, President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif of Iran. Despite their westernised cultured tones, the latter two make it plain that they are first and foremost loyal Iranian nationalists.

They are, however, about the best thing going for reasonable dialogue in the troubled waters of Gulf and Middle East diplomacy. While they cling to the belief in Iran’s right to develop nuclear power for civil use, they are desperate to break the past 35 years of Iran’s isolation and ease the burden of recent sanctions. And they are desperate to shift the increasing reserve of Iranian oil that cannot get on to the world market.

The unstated toleration of the Iranian Air Force joining in the air war against IS may also be Washington’s subtle warning to Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, implacable opponents of Shia Iran.

Many in the coalition ranged against IS believe these two Arab states in particular have done too little to stem the flow of funds and young hotheads to the jihadi cause.

This is a dangerous game. Following the Stuxnet malware attack on the computers of Iran’s centrifuge farm at the Natanz nuclear facility in 2010 and 2011, it is believed now that the Iranians struck back with a virus attack on the Aramco oil giant in August 2012. Some 60 per cent of Aramco’s computer files were contaminated in the space of a night.

This week the New York Times reports that an Iranian hacking team codenamed ‘Cleaver’ has hit computers in dozens of companies, including six major oil and gas multinationals, across the Middle East in the past few weeks. This is the same team that successfully hacked the US Navy’s computers in 2012. 

So, America’s unstated tolerance can only go so far. As Rear Admiral John Kirby stressed in his briefing about Iran’s F4s, Iran has not been allowed to join formally the international coalition ranged against IS. “Nothing has changed about our policy of not coordinating military activity with the Iranians,” he stated. 

Unstated tolerance does not mean friendship – at least not yet.

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