Senior ministers and security chiefs to consider Gulf crisis

Boris Johnson will gather senior ministers, military chiefs and spymasters to discuss the mounting crisis in the Gulf.

The Prime Minister will chair a meeting of the National Security Council after Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has updated MPs on the situation.

At a Cabinet meeting earlier on Tuesday, the Prime Minister set out the Government’s position on “the importance of protecting British citizens and interests and de-escalating tensions”, Downing Street said.

Tensions have soared following the US strike in Iraq which killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.

An intensive round of diplomatic activity has seen Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab head to Brussels for talks with European counterparts before heading to Washington to meet US secretary of state Mike Pompeo later this week.

As he left RAF Northolt on his way to Brussels, Mr Raab told reporters: “We want to de-escalate the tensions.

“We are concerned that if we see a full-blown war it would be very damaging and the terrorists – and in particular Daesh (Islamic State) – would be the only winners.”

POLITICS Iran Troops
POLITICS Iran Troops

In response to the crisis, Downing Street said that force protection measures for British troops in the region were kept under “constant review”.

“The safety and security of our personnel is of paramount importance. We keep our force protection measures under constant review,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.

Tehran has vowed “severe revenge” for the killing of its top military commander in a US drone strike last week.

President Donald Trump in turn warned that the US was ready to strike back in a “disproportionate” manner if the Iranians should hit US targets.

The Ministry of Defence refused to comment on reports that it is stepping up contingency plans to evacuate military and civilian personnel from neighbouring Iraq amid fears they could be targets for Iranian reprisals.

The Times reported that a team of around 20 senior military planners and liaison officers had been dispatched to the embassy in Baghdad over the weekend.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

The Foreign Office was coy over reports that it was scaling back staffing at British embassies in the Middle East.

A spokesman said: “The British embassies in both Baghdad and Tehran are open.

“The safety and security of our staff is of paramount importance and we keep our security posture under regular review.”

Iranian ambassador to the UK Hamid Baeidinejad dismissed the reports as “fake news”, adding: “I was literally today in an FCO (Foreign Office) meeting to expand the presence in Tehran.”

Mr Wallace will update MPs as they return to Westminster following the Christmas break.

The Prime Minister has faced criticism that he was slow to respond to the crisis – only returning to the UK at the weekend following his new year holiday on the private Caribbean island of Mustique.

Asked why the Prime Minister was not making the statement in the Commons, his spokesman said: “The PM leads a Cabinet Government and the response to events in the Middle East is a collective Cabinet response.

“The Prime Minister continues to speak to world leaders. He has overseen the ministerial response and will chair the National Security Council later today.”

Mr Johnson has sought to tread a delicate diplomatic path – joining with French and German allies in calling for calm in the region.

At the same time, he is anxious to maintain good relations with the Trump administration ahead of talks with the US on a post-Brexit trade deal.

The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment. We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World! If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way…and without hesitation!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 5, 2020

Meanwhile, US defence secretary Mark Esper was forced to deny that America was about to withdraw its troops from Iraq where the strike on General Soleimani took place.

It followed a vote in the Iraqi parliament on Sunday, backed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, calling for the withdrawal of all foreign troops including British forces.

The Pentagon said the letter, addressed to the Iraqi defence ministry, had been a “poorly worded” draft which should never have been released.

Mr Johnson emphasised the need to maintain a coalition presence in Iraq against so-called Islamic State when he spoke by telephone to Mr Abdul-Mahdi on Monday.

Around 400 UK troops are stationed in Iraq in the fight against IS, while the US has 5,200, prompting fears of a withdrawal that could cripple the battle against the terror group.

In Iran, a stampede at a funeral procession for Gen Soleimani reportedly left dozens dead in his hometown of Kerman.