BAGHDAD — Iranian fighter jets struck extremist targets in Iraq recently, Iranian and American officials have confirmed, in the latest display of Tehran’s new willingness to conduct military operations openly on foreign battlefields rather than covertly and through proxies.
The shift stems in part from Iran’s deepening military role in Iraq in the war against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State. But it also reflects a profound change in Iran’s strategy, stepping from the shadows into a more overt use of hard power as it promotes Shiite influence around the region.
Iranian and Pentagon officials acknowledged that Iran had stepped up its military operations in Iraq last week, using 1970s-era fighter jets to bomb targets in a buffer zone that extends 25 miles into Iraq.
“We are flying missions over Iraq, we coordinate with the Iraqi government as we conduct those,” Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday. “It’s up to the Iraqi government to de-conflict that airspace.”
For months, Iran has flashed its military prowess around the region. It has offered weapons to the Lebanese Army and supported the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen who have taken over the capital, Sana, where a car bomb struck the Iranian ambassador’s residence on Wednesday.
In Syria, Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported Shiite militant movement, and the Iranian paramilitary Al Quds force, have kept President Bashar al-Assad in power. And in Iraq, Iran’s once-elusive spymaster, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Quds force who has spent a career in the shadows orchestrating terrorist attacks — including some that killed American soldiers in Iraq — has emerged as a public figure, with pictures of him on Iraq’s battlefields popping up on social media.
The apparent shift in Iran’s strategy has been most noticeable in Iraq, where even American officials acknowledge the decisive role of Iranian-backed militias, particularly in protecting Baghdad from an assault by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, but also working with the American-led air campaign.
While Iran’s increasingly public military role has proved essential in repelling the advances of the Islamic State, American officials worry that it could ultimately destabilize Iraq by deepening sectarian divisions. Iraq’s Sunnis blame the Iranian-backed Shiite militias for sectarian abuses, and are reluctant to join in the fight against extremists because of Iran’s influence.
Admiral Kirby said: “Our message to Iran is the same today as it was when it started, and as it is to any neighbor in the region that is involved in the anti-ISIL activities. And that’s that we want nothing to be done that further inflames sectarian tensions in the country.”
The admiral, who indirectly confirmed the airstrikes by saying that he had “no reason to believe” the reports about them were untrue, said that they appeared so far to be limited.
The airstrikes occurred at the end of November in Iraq’s eastern Diyala Province, where Iran’s territory is closest to Iraq’s battlefields, Hamid Reza Taraghi, an Iranian politician, confirmed. He also confirmed the existence of the buffer zone, which he said was accepted by the Iraqis.
“We do not tolerate any threats within the buffer zone, and these targets were in the vicinity of the buffer zone,” Mr. Taraghi said, adding that the strikes had killed dozens of extremist fighters.
In Iraq, a degree of coordination between the American military and Iran’s is imperative but also awkward, making it appear that the United States is working in tandem with its adversary. Often a single Iraqi officer will serve as an intermediary between the American-led air campaign and the Iranians.
Iraqi leaders say that Tehran has often been faster than Washington to offer help in a crisis. When the Islamic State stormed Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June and moved south toward Baghdad, President Obama took a measured approach, pushing for political changes before committing to military action. But Iran jumped right in. It was the first country to send weapons to the Kurds in the north, and moved quickly to protect Baghdad, working with militias it supported already.
“When Baghdad was threatened, the Iranians did not hesitate to help us, and did not hesitate to help the Kurds when Erbil was threatened,” Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said in a recent television interview here, referring to the Kurdish capital in the north.
He contrasted that approach to that of the United States, saying the Iranians were “unlike the Americans, who hesitated to help us when Baghdad was in danger, and hesitated to help our security forces.”
“And the reason Iran did not hesitate to help us,” Mr. Abadi added, “was because they consider ISIS as a threat to them, not only to us.”
Ali Khedery, a former American official in Iraq, said, “For the Iranians, really, the gloves are off.”
Of the growing regional role of General Suleimani, Mr. Khedery was blunt. “Suleimani is the leader of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen,” he said. “Iraq is not sovereign. It is led by Suleimani, and his boss, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei” — Iran’s supreme leader.
While the United States and Iran are traditional rivals, if they can reach a deal over Iran’s nuclear program, more normal relations could follow, including close cooperation against the Islamic State. That was the point Mr. Obama made in a letter to the ayatollah last month urging him to sign off on the nuclear deal.
But the letter, as well as an earlier one wishing the Iranian leader a speedy recovery from surgery, may have backfired, one analyst said, projecting a weakness that only encouraged Iran to display its power more openly.
“When Obama sends letters to our leader wishing him a speedy recovery, to us that is a sign of weakness,” said one Iranian journalist closely connected to the conservative Revolutionary Guards. “During meetings the letter is discussed and we conclude: ‘Obama needs a deal. He needs us.’ We would never write him such a letter.”
Shiite politicians in Iraq are hopeful that a nuclear deal would lead to greater coordination between the United States and Iran in the war here, though experts say there is no indication Iran would welcome direct coordination. In an interview this week, Hakim al-Zamili, an Iraqi politician and a Shiite militia leader, said, “If there were an honest coordination between U.S. and Iranian advisers, Iraq could have been liberated within a week.”
Sunnis fear that such a deal would give Iran legitimacy on the world stage, and embolden them to exert even more influence here and across the region. Mithal al-Alusi, a Sunni lawmaker, said that an agreement between the United States and Iran would mean “the Americans are handing over Iraq to Iran.”
The Obama administration has made clear that while it welcomes Iran’s help in fighting the extremists, there is no actual coordination.
“I think it’s self-evident that if Iran is taking on ISIL in some particular place and it’s confined to taking on ISIL and it has an impact, it’s going to be — the net effect is positive,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday in Brussels, where he met with other members of the coalition against the Islamic State. “But that’s not something that we’re coordinating.”
Correction: December 4, 2014
Because of an editing error, a sentence in an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that there is no direct coordination between Iraq and the United States regarding military operations against extremist fighters in Iraq. The sentence should have said there is no direct coordination between Iran and the United States.
Link to interactive Map: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/06/12/world/middleeast/the-iraq-isis-conflict-in-maps-photos-and-video.html
Tim Arango reported from Baghdad, and Thomas Erdbrink from Tehran. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.