WASHINGTON The United States said on Monday it would refuse to seek Iran's cooperation in fighting Islamic State forces by being more flexible in the negotiations of six world powers with Tehran on its nuclear program.
Senior Iranian officials told Reuters that Iran is ready to work with the United States and its allies to stop Islamic State militants but would like more flexibility on Iran's uranium enrichment program in exchange.
Asked to respond, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the idea was unacceptable, remarks that echoed those from other Western powers in the negotiations with Tehran. European officials have also made clear they do not want to bring other issues into the nuclear negotiations.
Earnest said the effort by world powers, including the United States, to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program is "entirely separate" from President Barack Obama's attempts to build a coalition against Islamic State.
"The United States will not be in the position of trading aspects of Iran's nuclear program to secure commitments to take on ISIL," Earnest said, using an acronym for Islamic State (IS).
He also said the United States would not coordinate the coalition's military activities with the Iranians and would not share intelligence on Islamic State with Iran.
Islamic State forces have seized swathes of Iraq and Syria and proclaimed a caliphate. They stand accused of massacres of civilians, beheadings and other human rights violations.
While not surprising, the U.S. response suggests the White House feels a need to tell Iran publicly that it wants other issues kept away from the nuclear talks.
The comments from Iranian officials about linking the nuclear negotiations and the fight against Islamic State highlight how difficult it may be for the Western powers to separate the atomic negotiations from other topics.
Iran wields influence in the Syrian civil war and on the Iraqi government, which is fighting the advance of Islamic State fighters.
The latest round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China began last week and is expected to run at least until Friday.
No major breakthroughs are expected in the negotiations in New York, which are aimed at coming up with a deal that would end sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. The sides have set a Nov. 24 deadline for a long-term accord between Iran and the six powers.
(Reporting By Roberta Rampton and Steve Holland, additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in New York; Editing by Bill Trott and Howard Goller)