Iran's president said Saturday the country would consider assisting U.S. efforts to fend off violent Sunni militants threatening Iraq's heartland, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf to prepare for "military options."
Speaking at a press conference Saturday, President Hassan Rouhani said he would study any request for help from Iraq, but added that Iran has "no option but to confront terrorism."
"When the U.S. takes action against (the militants), then one can think about cooperation," President Hassan Rouhani said, the Associated Press reports. "Until today, no specific request for help has been demanded. But we are ready to help within international law."
President Obama has ruled out the option of putting American troops back in Iraq after a long, costly war but has kept the option of airstrikes on the table. The Pentagon announced Saturday that Hagel ordered the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush from the North Arabian Sea to the Persian Gulf "should military options be required to protect American lives, citizens and interests in Iraq."
Rebel Sunni forces have stalled 60 miles north of Baghdad as they consolidate their rapid gains over the past week, including the large cities of Mosul and Tikrit, reports the New York Times. Citizens in Baghdad are bracing for a siege.
A local official in Tehran said more than 4,200 Iranians have volunteered to travel to Iraq to protect Shiite shrines as extremist Sunni militants capture city after city, menacing the nation's capital of Baghdad.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a group that gained notoriety in the Syrian civil war has been labeled too extreme even by al-Qaeda, conducting widespread summary beheadings and threatening populaces with draconian Shariah Islamic law. The group seeks to form a medieval-style Islamic caliphate across the region.
Shi'ite leaders in an Iraq issued a broad call to arms Friday in an effort to protect vulnerable religious shrines in the Shiite-majority country.
"Citizens who are able to bear arms and fight terrorists, defending their country and their people and their holy places, should volunteer and join the security forces to achieve this holy purpose,” Sheik Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai told his congregants in statements broadcast across the country.
Iran could play a decisive role in the conflict if Rouhani's hints are fulfilled, but the final military decision will be made by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.