(CNN) -- Secretary of State John Kerry stressed Thursday that the United States is interested only in communicating with Iran, not working with the country, to push back Islamist militants who are threatening Iraq.
On Thursday, he told NBC News that statements he'd made this week seem to have been misunderstood.
"What I said is we are interested in communicating with Iran to make clear that the Iranians know what we're thinking and we know what they're thinking and there's a sharing of information so people aren't making mistakes," the secretary said.
The idea of the U.S. working with Iran would be a "head-scratcher," he said. "No. We're not sitting around contemplating if we're going to do that. That's not on the table."
In a Yahoo News interview this week, Kerry was asked: "Can you see cooperating with Iran militarily?
According to a transcript of that interview on the State Department's website, the secretary responded: "I -- at this moment, I think we need to go step by step and see what, in fact, might be a reality, but I wouldn't rule out anything that would be constructive to providing real stability, a respect for the constitution, a respect for the election process, and a respect for the ability of the Iraqi people to form a government that represents all of the interests of Iraq, not one sectarian group over another. It has to be inclusive, and that has been one of the great problems of the last few years."
Kerry was then asked: "If Iran recognizes that, would you be willing to work with that country?"
He answered, "Let's see what Iran might or might not be willing to do before we start making any pronouncements. 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."
After that interview, there was debate on television news and in print stories about the possibility of the U.S. and Iran working together to help Iraq. CNN asked experts if it was even possible for the longtime foes to join forces.
In Thursday's NBC interview, Kerry said that "nothing is off the table. All options are available" to President Barack Obama when it comes to batting ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Made up of mostly Sunni Muslims, ISIS is an al Qaeda splinter group that wants to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state, that would stretch from Iraq into northern Syria. The group has had significant success in Syria battling President Bashar al-Assad's security forces. Since launching its battle for Iraqi territory, ISIS has said it has killed at least 1,700 Shiites.
Scores of Iraqis have fled their homes, prompting fears of a brewing humanitarian crisis.
NBC said to Kerry: "It seems like the U.S. was totally caught off guard by this."
"Look, our people on the ground in Iraq have seen the increased intensity," he replied. "We've been watching this happening. We have been engaged in efforts over the months. We've been beefing up our assistance, our presence."
On Wednesday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that the U.S. has received a request from the Iraqi government to use its air power in the conflict.
Dempsey, the senior ranking member of the U.S. armed forces, spoke before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday on Capitol Hill in Washington, saying that the United States' "national security interest (is) to counter (ISIS) where we find them."
Kerry stressed in the NBC interview that ISIS is "threatening" to U.S. and Western interests.
He said that the U.S. has not acted so far "for a lot of different reasons," including that, until recently, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki "denied the kind of permissions necessary."
Kerry then stressed that any assistance to Iraq is "not about Maliki."
"Let me stress: What the United States is doing is about Iraq," Kerry said. "It is not about Maliki. Nothing that the President decides to do is going to be focused specifically on Prime Minister Maliki. It is focused on the people of Iraq."
Kerry said the U.S. is "deeply engaged in working with our allies and friends in the region. We are assisting, training, doing work in terms of providing nonlethal aid and assistance."
NBC asked Kerry what he would say to Iraq veterans and their families who lost so much during that long war, only to contemplate that the country is on the brink again.
Whether Iraq gets to that terrible point "remains to be seen," Kerry responded. "The test is in, really, these next few days and weeks. We are going to do everything in our power to follow through and try to get the job done through diplomacy ... to honor their sacrifice."