London | European leaders including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have held back from backing their ally the United States in its escalation of tensions with Iran, calling on both sides to “exercise utmost restraint and responsibility”.
Mr Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron said in a joint statement on Monday (AEDT) that there was “an urgent need for de-escalation”, and they were ready to work with all sides to “defuse tensions and restore stability”.
The Europeans have been consistently keen to avoid a flare-up with Iran, and to bring both Washington and Tehran back into the nuclear deal that US President Donald Trump disowned in May last year. They have more diplomatic and commercial ties with Iran than the US does, and rely on oil and gas from the region.
Iran has vowed to respond violently to the US drone strike that killed top security official Qasem Soleimani on Friday. Mr Trump subsequently tweeted that he would respond to any Iranian retaliation “quickly and fully… and perhaps in a disproportionate manner”.
In a nod to Mr Trump’s increasingly intemperate tweets over the weekend, the European big three used their statement to slate Iran’s “negative role” in the region. But they also highlighted the risk that the crisis poses to Iraq’s hard-won stability and to the coalition against Islamic State.
‘We will not lament his death’
In an earlier, separate statement, Mr Johnson took aim at both sides in saying “all calls for retaliation or reprisals will simply lead to more violence in the region, and they are in no one’s interest”.
But he added that General Soleimani was “responsible for a pattern of disruptive, destabilising behaviour in the region”. “Given the leading role he has played in actions that have led to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians and Western personnel, we will not lament his death,” he said.
“Boris Johnson is trying to ride two horses,” said Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform. “He’s trying not to irritate the Americans too much, but on the substance the UK has been clear all along it wants a diplomatic approach to dealing with Iran, not a military one.”
Mr Bond said the French and Germans faced a similar dilemma. They need to shore up the NATO alliance with the US – of which Mr Trump is a longstanding sceptic – but they have national interests to protect.
“They have commercial and other interests in the region that they see threatened by conflict,” he said. “And all of us [Europeans] are at least to some extent reliant on oil and gas from the Middle East in a way that the US probably isn’t.”
EU diplomats met in Brussels late on Monday (AEDT) to discuss the crisis, but unlike many other foreign-policy questions there’s broad consensus in the bloc behind the Franco-German position.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the weekend told American television that “the Europeans haven’t been as helpful as I wish that they could be”.
For Mr Johnson, the crisis is an early test of the former foreign secretary’s diplomatic skills as leader.
“The rhetoric, mostly, is one of closeness and loyalty to the United States, in order to service the internal party argument that a US-UK trade deal is just around the corner,” wrote Stephen Bush, political editor at the New Statesman magazine.
“The reality is of building on the ever-deepening defence integration with Europe’s other military power, France, and of occupying the same position on Trump as the rest of the democratic world: making reassuring noises and hoping for an undramatic end to his presidency in November of this year.”
Although Britain managed to reopen its embassy in Iran in 2015 after it was stormed by Iranian protesters in 2011, the two countries have an often testy relationship.
In an article in The Times on Monday, a senior Iranian Quds Force commander threatened that British troops could be collateral damage in any retaliation against the US.
“We request UK, the key US ally, and other Western allies, including the NATO alliance, to not stand with this Trump regime to avoid wider collateral damage in Iran’s response as it conducts foreign military operations against US,” the unnamed commander said.
Britain has about 400 troops stationed in Iraq. The British navy will deploy warships to accompany the country’s merchant traffic through the Strait of Hormuz.