UK cautiously backs Trump while calling for calm over Iran attack

Boris Johnson urges de-escalation but adds Qasem Soleimani was ‘a threat to all our interests’

Iranian women hold up an image of Qassem Suleimani
(Image credit: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

The British government has called for calm in the wake of the US’s controversial decision to assassinate Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, a move that has thrown the Middle East into turmoil.

Amid what The Guardian says are “continuing questions about the legal justification for US actions”, Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally broke cover on Sunday to say Soleimani was “a threat to all our interests” adding “we will not lament his death”.

However, Johnson also called for de-escalation by all sides and said that steps have been taken to increase security around UK personnel and interests in the Middle East.

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The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, had taken a firmer position earlier on Sunday, saying the UK was “on the same page” as the US government and was “sympathetic” to Washington’s situation.

The statement represented “a marked shift towards supporting the incendiary attack” says The Independent and came after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticised the UK, France and Germany for failing to be “as helpful as I wish that they could be”.

In an article in The Observer, shadow foreign secretary and leadership Labour leadership hopeful Emily Thornberry criticised Johnson for failing to cut short his Caribbean holiday amid the mounting crisis, asking whether he had been “afraid of angering President Trump? Or is it simply that, as he lounges in the Caribbean sun, he simply does not care.”

His government’s response will have done little to assuage concerns the UK government is cosying up to the Trump administration on the world stage in the hope of securing a quick post-Brexit trade deal at home.

The Times cites one senior figure who described Johnson’s stance as “pretty doveish” and signalled that “his primary concern was to avoid Britain being dragged into a war”.

However, senior officials, “expressed incredulity that more of [Johnson’s] team did not return to work quickly after the Christmas break to take charge of their first foreign policy crisis”, says the paper.

The Daily Telegraph reports there “appears to have been some dispute at the top of Government about how to proceed over the weekend with Foreign Office sources saying the Government had to tread a fine line to avoid putting the UK ‘front and centre for any retaliation’ which had presented the UK with a ‘strategic choice’”.

Following reports Tehran-backed hackers had breached a US government website, “there are fears that Britain’s national infrastructure and government departments could be targeted in retaliation by Iran”, says the paper.

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Much now depends on how Iran responds.

In an interview with CNN in Tehran, Hossein Dehghan, the military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, said on Sunday “the response for sure will be military and against military sites.”

It comes after Donald Trump threatened 52 Iranian targets – a reference to the 52 US hostages seized in the US Embassy in Tehran back in November 1979 – as well as those important “to the Iranian culture”, which “suggests a much wider target list than just leadership, military or economic sites” writes BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus.

“President Trump is struggling to establish some kind of deterrence” he says “but the ball is now very clearly in Iran's court and it is very hard to see how Tehran can fail to act”.

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