Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 November 2019

Crisis mode as Britain and US strain to keep in Middle East lockstep

Fast-moving threat focus creates 'pretty unusual' divergence between close allies

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt met in Brussels on May 13, 2019. AFP
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt met in Brussels on May 13, 2019. AFP

Britain and America have traditionally moved in lockstep on Middle East policy but the current spiral of events has exposed gaps between the two sides.

On the surface it is business as usual. Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, has found friendlier words from British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt than from any other European counterpart.

Speaking alongside Mr Pompeo last week, Mr Hunt said that London appreciated Washington’s alarm over Iran's role in its neighbourhood. “We share the same perception of the Iranian threat level,” he said.

Less than a week later, Britain’s most senior general in the Iraq-based international coalition was served with an unprecedented rebuke from the US for stating there had been “no increased threat” from Iranian-backed militias to western interests.

In fact Whitehall officials have recognised that recent developments need careful handling. The Foreign Office has moved into a crisis footing in response to increasing tensions. A special operations centre has been set up to co-ordinate monitoring and responses to the situation. Sky News has reported that British missions in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar were on a heightened state of alert over the threat from Iran.

Mr Hunt has warned of the dangers of an accidental flare-up. “We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident with an escalation that is unintended,” Mr Hunt said. “I think what we need is a period of calm.”

While some parts of the US administration have been warning of unfolding dangers, British officials explained Mr Hunt’s precautionary thinking. “We need to be a bit careful not to talk both sides into an escalation and, as the foreign secretary has said, not get into a situation where one side is preparing for the other side to escalate until that in itself is an escalation,” said one source.

“You can do quite a lot of things that to you look defensive and quite careful but to the other side look not like a response but in fact like an adverse action.”

Veteran diplomats have said they cannot recall a time when there has been such divergence between London and Washington. Lord Dannatt, the former head of the British military, has said the signs of schism are “pretty unusual”.

Alistair Burt, who was until recently the specialist minster for the Middle East at the Foreign Office, explained on Thursday why London viewed the situation in the region as so precarious.

“The present ratcheting up of tension between Iran and the United States is entirely unhelpful and dangerous in the area,” he said. “It has knock-on effects in these conflicts when that increase in tension becomes part of the background to making an agreement – and anything that makes an agreement more difficult is something I would have great concern about.”

Britain remains, alongside other European countries, committed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed with Iran over its nuclear programme in 2015. Only abandonment by Tehran of its commitments under the deal would cause the Europeans to rethink.

There are other considerations for British officials as well. Discussing Iran’s use of proxies in conflicts in Syria and elsewhere earlier this week, Andrew Murrison, the new Middle East minister, warned MPs that outside powers needed “good relations” as far as possible with players like Iran in the hope that their “good counsel” would be used to curtail fighting.

Mr Burt added that Iran’s position in the region could not be wished away, including in Yemen where it is backing the Houthi militia.

“Iranian interests will have to be recognised,” he said. “They [Iran] will not want anyone to use Yemen for bases for any potential attack in relation to them. I’m not excusing Iranian behaviour in any way but understanding why Iran does some of the things it does is important.”

In reacting to the events in Washington British officials are also mindful of President Donald Trump’s reported scepticism of the policies driven by the hawks in his cabinet, Mr Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton.

With the US leader due to travel for a state visit to the UK in early June, there are already plenty of divisions between the two states on display, including over the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei and the Brexit negotiations.

No one wants Iran to rise to the top of the list but there are essential interests at stake. “I don’t think anyone wants to see a war with Iran,” the government official added.

Updated: May 16, 2019 09:09 PM

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