The UK government distanced itself from Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric towards Iran as tensions mount in the Middle East, with Downing Street saying it opposed Mr Trump’s threat to bomb Iranian cultural sites.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson also moved to reassure the government of Iraq after its MPs voted to expel western troops from the country in retaliation for a US airstrike that killed Iranian military chief Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.
President Trump doubled down on a threat on Twitter to target Iranian cultural sites, posting on the social media site yesterday that the US would “quickly and fully strike back, and perhaps in a disproportionate manner” to any retaliatory attacks.
Mr Johnson spoke to the Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi yesterday morning, ahead of a meeting of senior ministers to discuss the UK’s response to the crisis. The National Security Council is expected to meet today.
Asked about the president’s threat, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman told a Westminster briefing: “There are international conventions that prevent the destruction of cultural heritage”.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab added yesterday: “We have been very clear that cultural sites are protected under international law and we would expect that to be respected.”
The Prime Minister, Mr Raab and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace joined senior officials including the Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill to discuss the crisis yesterday afternoon.
“Clearly our first priority is to make sure that UK nationals, citizens, shipping, diplomatic missions and military personnel are safe,” Mr Raab said following the meeting.
“We’ve changed our travel advice, we are going to be reinforcing in due course the Royal Navy protection for shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.
“On a diplomatic front, our overwhelming message that the Prime Minister and I are conveying to our European and American counterparts, and also critically our partners in the Middle East, is the importance of de-escalating the tensions and finding a diplomatic way through this crisis.”
Downing Street insisted Britain’s security partnership with the US remained “very close” despite Mr Trump not informing the UK of its plans to assassinate the general – adding that the UK is in “regular dialogue at every level”.
Around 400 UK troops are stationed in Iraq, joining a 5,200-strong US force in the fight against the so-called Islamic State group. There are fears that anger in Iraq over the fatal US airstrike could undermine the united front against terrorism. Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg announced yesterday that the alliance’s forces have suspended training in Iraq.
Following the call between Mr Johnson and his Iraqi counterpart, a Number 10 spokeswoman said the leaders “discussed the need to de-escalate tensions in the region... and agreed to work together to find a diplomatic way forward. The Prime Minister underlined the UK’s unwavering commitment to Iraq’s stability and sovereignty and emphasised the importance of the continued fight against the shared threat from Daesh.”
The British government is also “urgently speaking to partners about next steps” after Iran’s “extremely concerning” announcement that it will abandon all remaining restrictions to uranium enrichment under a deal to limit the Iranian nuclear programme that President Trump has already pulled out of.
Middle East minister Andrew Murrison called on both sides to “cool it”, telling Sky News: “The problem with this is there is a risk of miscalculation and reaching a point which is very difficult to reverse.”