Dominic Raab, Britain’s foreign secretary, has defended US president Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate the top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, saying America had “a right to self-defence”.
“We understand the action the Americans have taken,” Mr Raab told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show. “We understand why they did it.”
Mr Raab insisted that Soleimani was a “menace” whose “job description” was backing pro-Iranian militia across the Middle East and attacking western interests.
Britain is anxious to maintain strong relations with the Trump administration as it prepares to leave the EU, but is also working with France and Germany to try to keep alive the nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers in 2015.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, spoke to Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, over the weekend and called for de-escalation and continued efforts to save the nuclear agreement.
Mr Borrell “expressed his deep concern about the latest increase of violent confrontations in Iraq, including the killing of General Qassem Soleimani,” the EU said in a statement on Sunday.
The stand-off between Washington and Tehran was triggered by Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the nuclear accord in 2018 and impose crippling sanctions on the Islamic republic. The EU, France, the UK and Germany, the European signatories, have sought to keep the agreement alive, but Tehran has increased its nuclear activity and is due to announce its next step this week.
European powers have also shared the Trump administration’s concerns about Iran’s regional behaviour and missile programme.
Mr Trump gave no advance warning to UK prime minister Boris Johnson ahead of the drone strike, despite the presence of hundreds of British troops on a training mission in Iraq and thousands of UK contractors working in Iran and Iraq.
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, has accused European allies of not being “helpful enough” after the assassination and the threat of a US-Iran war is proving the first big foreign policy test for the new Johnson government.
Mr Raab will meet Mr Pompeo in Washington this week to try to repair the diplomatic damage caused to the western alliance by the drone strike in Baghdad and to seek to persuade the Trump administration to “de-escalate the situation”.
But Keir Starmer, who is standing for the Labour leadership, accused Mr Johnson and Mr Raab of falling into step with an “erratic” US president. “We can’t blindly follow the Americans into a potential war in the Middle East,” Sir Keir said.
Mr Raab said it was essential that the west left “the door open” for Iran to work with the west on a diplomatic solution. “We don’t want to see a major war in the Middle East,” he said.
Mr Johnson was scheduled to return to Downing Street on Sunday after a new year break on the Caribbean island of Mustique. Labour has accused him of staying on his sunlounger rather than confronting the crisis.
But Mr Raab insisted the UK had taken the necessary steps to ensure security for British troops and civilians in the region.
The UK government has also announced that the Royal Navy will offer to accompany British-flagged commercial vessels through the Strait of Hormuz in light of the increased threat caused by Soleimani’s death.
Ben Wallace, UK defence secretary, said he would take “all necessary steps to protect our ships and citizens at this time”.
Britain already has two warships in the Gulf — HMS Montrose and HMS Defender — which are part of an international monitoring operation prompted by Iran’s seizure of a British tanker last summer. The navy was providing “close accompaniment” of British-flagged vessels until early November, when the threat level was thought to have subsided.
Mr Wallace’s announcement signals that British assets in the Gulf are once again considered to be at higher risk since the Iranian commander’s death. However, accompaniment services will only be provided to vessels that request assistance.
Additional reporting by Helen Warrell