John Baron is MP for Basildon and Billericay.
The world, and especially those in the Middle East, tensely awaits the consequences of the killing of General Soleimani. Some fear that the region is on the brink of open conflict between the United States and the Islamic Republic, with Iraq as the battlefield and with the potential to allow Daesh and its affiliates to regroup as attention swings elsewhere. Whether or not these fears turn out to be justified, it is concerning for the British Government that the strike came as much as a surprise to Number 10 and the FCO as it evidently did to General Soleimani.
The Prime Minister is right in his statement that we should not lament the General’s passing. Over many years he has been the architect of much of Iran’s military and foreign policy, which has violently interfered in the internal affairs of many countries. Many of the IEDs which maimed and killed British soldiers in southern Iraq were made in his bomb factories, and the Shia militias which caused our diplomats and soldiers so many problems were almost certainly trained and supplied on the General’s orders. The conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen have certainly been the bloodier and more protracted because of his involvement.
However, we must recognise that there are very few ‘clean hands’ in the Middle East. A large cast of countries, the United Kingdom and United States included, have chosen to involve themselves, to a greater or lesser extent, in the multiple conflicts across the region over the past decades. The wars in Syria and Yemen in particular have become the battlefields for proxy wars between different blocs – the former especially with overtones of Cold War one-upmanship with the strong Russian support for President al-Assad, and with the various Gulf states contending with each other too. Turkey, for its part, senses an opportunity with its Syrian and Libyan involvements. Israel also is not without guilt given its interventions in the region.
Whether the United States was justified in killing General Soleimani is an open question, given the President’s apparent reliance on secret intelligence to justify the strike. Supporters of the decision cite a rumoured plot to kill US diplomats, as well as an extensive list of Iranian or Iranian-backed provocations, from the downing of a US drone to the large-scale attack on Saudi oil infrastructure – which the US chose not to respond to. However, it seems the incursion into its Embassy in Baghdad proved to be a tipping point, Donald Trump probably recalling the damage done to Barack Obama – and to Hilary Clinton in her 2016 election campaign – when the US Ambassador to Libya was killed in 2012.
Whatever the justification, killing such a major figure will have consequences – as indeed it would if the Iranian Government assassinated the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Iranians feel honour-bound to respond, and we will all have to brace ourselves for this. Hopefully this was carefully considered by the President as he took the decision to authorise the strike, and no doubt the British Government would have counselled against such a move had it been informed in advance of his intentions. The fact that no US allies appear to have been forewarned of this attack is concerning, not least because all Western forces in the region will probably be viewed by Tehran as ‘fair game’.
Although Trump has a claim to be a war dove rather than a war hawk – a large part of his campaign in 2016 was ending endless foreign entanglements – there is no doubt he has a blind spot when it comes to Iran. Relations between the US and Iran are complicated, with grave faults on both sides over the decades. However, some of these differences were being resolved by the nuclear deal agreed between Iran and the international community in 2015. This is the deal the US President has very publicly torn up, which inevitably complicates trying to find a diplomatic solution to the current crisis.
However, such diplomatic steps must be attempted, with other countries mediating between the US and Iran – we need to remember that diplomatic solutions tend to be more enduring than military ones. Here is an area where Britain could play a role, with both a close relationship with Washington and a reasonably cordial one with Tehran, despite our similarly complicated history. A wider or more protracted conflict is in no-one’s interests, and the international community should remind the Americans and Iranians alike of this fact – especially when other countries, like Iraq and Syria, will likely prove the arena.
Britain’s viewpoint would certainly carry more weight if it were bolstered by greater resources. Our diplomatic and military capabilities have suffered in recent years, often seen as easy targets for spending cutbacks. This has resulted in a dilution of diplomatic expertise and a reduction in our military heft, sending the unhelpful signal to friends and potential adversaries alike that we are retreating from the international stage. This should be quickly addressed by the new Government, and if done correctly might give the US President pause for thought the next time such a situation comes around.