Wednesday 8 January 2020 6:26 am

Qassem Soleimani's death is the UK’s first test of post-Brexit foreign policy

Alan Mendoza is executive director of the Henry Jackson Society.

It would be safe to say that the last thing our new government expected at the start of 2020 — flush with enthusiasm for its domestic agenda — was a foreign policy crisis, much less so one sprung upon it by the reaction of the mercurial Trump administration.

But in truth, the drone strike on Iran’s regional meddler-in-chief, General Qassem Soleimani, in Baghdad last week by the US should have been entirely understandable to our leaders, even if not predictable. 

Soleimani, the commander of the elite Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, had his fingerprints over all manner of Iranian interventions in the Middle East over the past two decades, including the deaths and maiming of British soldiers in Iraq through terrorist activities under his influence. 

His hand had been detected in the ramping up of Iranian regional aggression in the past six months, including the attempted paralysis of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure, the hijacking of a British ship in the Gulf, and recent Iranian-organised provocations in Iraq. 

It was the last of these, an assault on the US embassy in Baghdad, which appears to have been the proximate trigger for a swift US response allied to intelligence that further attacks on US personnel were being planned. For Soleimani — who knew full well given the line of terrorism he engaged in that every trip out of Iran might be his last — crossing this red line under a President determined to restore the idea of US deterrence proved to be a fatal misjudgement.   

The most puzzling aspect of the whole affair has been the reaction of sections of the media and intelligentsia in the west to the death of a thug. A talented thug perhaps, but the henchman to an odious regime responsible for domestic human rights abuses, the recent murder of hundreds of its own citizens protesting against it, and untold misery to millions in its region owing to its interventions in Iraq, Lebanon and its propping up of the barbarous Assad regime in Syria. 

The New York Times wrote up such a glowing account of Soleimani’s life that one social media wag suggested it read like a Tinder profile. 

Others have variously breathlessly compared him to James Bond and Lord Nelson, with the idea taking root that the US action was somehow equivalent to a successful Iranian attempt to kill the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It is not in the slightest. There can be no moral equivalence between the killing of one of the icons of international terrorism and a military leader of a democracy with legal, judicial and political controls. Nor should we accept that Iranian ambitions are legitimate, even if they are rational. 

This situation has, however, seemingly placed British diplomacy into a bind. The UK is being sniped at from all sides for attempting to push for European-favoured de-

escalation of the crisis while at the same time — if somewhat slowly — defending the US action.  

Nobody wants another war in the Middle East. There is a very real risk that if Iran retaliates, it will choose to target western allies of the US, potentially placing the British military, merchant ships, and even civilian holidaymakers in peril. The first care of the British government must of course be to ensure the security of the UK.

But the French and German preferred position of suggesting that both sides must de-escalate has less to do with worries about their own security, and more with the traditional EU-led approach of appeasement towards Iran. 

It is the same policy that has seen the European duo stick doggedly to the Iranian nuclear deal, dragging Britain along in their wake, even as it is increasingly obvious that without US participation — withdrawn because the agreement was temporary in nature and did not address Iran’s non-nuclear expansionism — that deal is dead. 

Pusillanimity may make sense to the EU. But the British people recently re-endorsed the idea of a new direction for our country by breaking away from the EU, while simultaneously rejecting the appeasement-personified foreign policy viewpoint of the main opposition party.  

The Iran situation is unwelcome and creates complications. But every crisis is also an opportunity. And this one clearly offers the chance for the UK to set the seal on years of EU-led foreign policy drift that has done nothing to stop the ayatollahs from attempting to pursue their dreams of regional hegemony, and replace it with a post-Brexit vision of renewed British influence and vigour in the Middle East.

This doesn’t mean conflict with the EU, or supine obedience to the US, but a robust and confident UK that places British strategic interests first, while demonstrating its utility to its partners. 

In the choice before us of our age-old ally, defending itself against repeated provocations, or an Iranian regime that has long been the principal source of destabilisation in the Middle East, there is no question where our loyalties must lie. 

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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