Iran stands ready to provide help to Iraq's government in its fight against Sunni insurgents within the framework of international law, President Hassan Rouhani said on Saturday, adding that so far Baghdad had not requested assistance.
Shi'ite Muslim Iran has been alarmed by the seizure this week of several major northern Iraqi towns by Sunni Islamist insurgent forces belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and their sweep southward to within an hour's drive of Baghdad, and not far from the Iranian border.
"Iran has never dispatched any forces to Iraq and it is very unlikely it will ever happen," Rouhani told Saturday's news conference broadcast live on state television.
"Our forces haven't launched an operation in a foreign country since the Islamic Revolution," the Iranian president said. "It is possible that we will advise on the fight against terrorism," he added. However, he stressed, "there is a difference between helping and intervening."
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Western diplomats suspect Iran has in the past sent some of its Revolutionary Guards, a hardline force that works in parallel with the army, to train and advise the Iraqi army or its militia allies.
Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, quoted by Fars news agency, said: "Supporting the Iraqi government and nation doe not mean sending troops to Iraq. It means condemning terrorist acts and closing and safeguarding our joint borders."
Rouhani suggested that the Sunni militants are linked to Iraqi politicians who lost in parliamentary elections held in April.
Iran has built close political and economic ties with postwar Iraq, and many influential Iraqi Shiites have spent time in the Islamic Republic. Iran this week halted flights to Baghdad because of security concerns and said it was intensifying security on its borders.
A senior Iranian official told Reuters earlier this week that Tehran, which has strong leverage in Shiite-majority Iraq, may be ready to cooperate with the United States in helping Baghdad fight back against the jihadist ISIL rebels.
"We can think about it if we see America starts confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq or elsewhere," he said, adding that "we all should practically and verbally confront terrorist groups."
Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are bent on recreating a mediaeval caliphate spanning territory they have carved out in fragmenting Iraq and Syria, where it has exploited a power vacuum in the midst of civil war.
The senior Iranian official told Reuters the idea of cooperating with the Americans was being discussed within the Tehran leadership. For now, according to Iranian media, Iran will send Baghdad's Shiite-led government advisers and weaponry, although probably not troops, to boost Baghdad.
In Washington, US President Barack Obama said he was reviewing military options, short of sending combat troops, to help Iraq repel the insurgency but warned any U.S. action must be accompanied by an Iraqi government effort to bridge divisions between Shi'ite and Sunni communities.
US officials said there were no contacts going on with Iran over the crisis in Iraq.
Rouhani said "terrorist groups" were getting financial and political backing and weaponry from some regional countries and some powerful Western states.
He named no countries, but was alluding in part to Sunni Gulf Arabs who Iran suspects has funnelled support to ISIL.
"Where did ISIL come from? Who is funding this terrorist group? We had warned everyone, including the West, about the danger of backing such a terrorist and reckless group."
Gulf Arab governments deny any role in backing ISIL, noting that the group has long battled Saudi Arabia's allies among other Sunni rebel factions in Syria.
Saudi Arabia last month designated ISIL a terrorist organisation, conveying its concern that young Saudis hardened by battle could come home to target the ruling Al Saud royal family - as happened after earlier wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Reuters and AFP contributed to this report.