• AP Photos
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that the United States is talking with Iran about the latest insurgency in Iraq.

The first time I heard of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was last week. The group had swept through smaller Iraqi cities and was threatening Baghdad. Iraq was in chaos.

Had I been sleeping? Had journalism?

Apparently Washington had.

“Rebels’ Fast Strike in Iraq Was Years in the Making,” says the headline over a New York Times story examining the blitzkrieg by the ISIS. Says the Times:

“With just a few thousand fighters, the group’s lightning sweep into Mosul and farther south appeared to catch many Iraqi and American officials by surprise. But the gains were actually the realization of a yearslong strategy of state-building that the group itself promoted publicly . . .

“Now that President Obama is weighing airstrikes and other military aid to block the militants’ advance in Iraq, an examination of its history through its own documents indicates that the group has been far more ambitious and effective than United States officials judged as they were winding down the American involvement in the war.”

Was this a case where we didn’t know what the bad guys were up to because a triumphant exodus from Iraq depended on our not knowing? And if we didn’t know, does that mean no one knew? I’d expect that Shiite Iran, located in the neighborhood, would have noticed the rise of a radical Sunni army dedicated to slaughtering Shiites.

On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said it’s possible that the U.S. and Iran might take coordinated action against ISIS. “Let’s see what Iran might or might not be willing to do before we start making any pronouncements,” Kerry told Yahoo!News. “I think we are open to any constructive process here that could minimize the violence, hold Iraq together—the integrity of the country—and eliminate the presence of outside terrorist forces that are ripping it apart.”

Meanwhile, Irani foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was telling the New Yorker‘s Robin Wright that it’s in everybody’s interests “to stabilize the government of Iraq. If the U.S. has come to realize that these groups pose a threat to the security of the region, and if the U.S. truly wants to fight terrorism and extremism, then it’s a common global cause.”

How long have Iran and the U.S. been thinking about making common cause? I have a feeling the subject didn’t just come up. The two countries have been talking for months about Iran swearing off nuclear weapons in return for an end to economic sanctions. Was the U.S. truly so oblivious to ISIS that these Sunni terrorists never crept into the conversation?

Here’s Jonathan Schanzer
of the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies sounding a variety of alarms. He tells the Wall Street Journal that ISIS is a jihadi organization “that appears to really not have anything standing in its way,” certainly not the weak-willed Iraqi army. Yet he thinks America is nuts to look to Iran “as a potential partner to help stabilize the region.” “Extremely ill-advised,” says Schanzer. “I couldn’t think of a worse partner for this. . . . Looking for answers from terrorist organizations [Iran] is just not the way to bring stability at this volatile moment.”

So when it comes to dancing with Iran, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Fox News savors the volatile moment. Told by a “senior State Department official” that the U.S. and Iran “briefly discussed Iraq on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna,” Fox reports that last weekend Syrian warplanes struck ISIS convoys inside Iraq and observes that “the strike raises the prospect of the United States, Iran and Syria all battling the same enemy in Iraq.”

In hapless circumstances, governments can’t be finicky about who they’re at war with. Iran’s friend Bashar al-Assad bad, but ISIS worse. Iran’s friend Hezbollah bad, but Israel’s problem. Iran not our friend but the only grownup regime in the region. Maybe we were caught asleep at the switch by the ISIS and we’ve simply been winging it for the past week. But it might also be true that the nature of our conversations with Iran changed some time back and the headlines are just beginning to catch up.

It’s a breaking story and it’s full of blanks. In due time, journalism will fill them in.