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15 April 2024

Will the Iran crisis split Rishi Sunak and David Cameron?

A new dividing line could emerge between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary.

By Freddie Hayward

The Prime Minister is expected to address the House of Commons later to update parliament on the RAF’s role in the Middle East over the weekend. British Typhoons intercepted Iranian drones that were heading for Israel. The attack was Iran’s response to an Israeli strike on its consulate in Damascus on 1 April.

The Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, confirmed on the media round this morning that the RAF’s main job was to backfill American jets that were on a mission against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The British government did so at the Americans’ request.

Cameron echoed President Joe Biden’s message that Israel should, in the context of international relations, “take the win”. Both the British government and the US are trying to dial down tensions in order to prevent this tit-for-tat exchange turning into all-out war. This explains why they have both said they will not take part in a retaliatory response.

Their position on the consulate strike is key here. The New Statesman’s foreign correspondent Bruno Maçães suggests the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have ordered the 1 April strike to shore up his political position. He writes:

“Throughout my meetings in Israel two weeks ago, including with the former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon, one concern was evident: that the war in Gaza had reached an impasse and that the current, deeply unpopular Israeli government may be desperately looking for a way to prevent its own ruinous political defeat. Netanyahu seems to have seen the attack against the Iranian embassy as a way to expand the war, placing it in a more favourable position. Draw in Iran and the swelling American criticism of Israel’s actions will fall silent. So far that has worked.”

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Cameron, however, struck a slightly more sceptical tone this morning. When asked about the consulate strike, he said that “countries have a right to respond when they feel they’ve suffered an aggression”. In other words, Iran was justified in countering an attack on what is considered its sovereign territory. But Cameron qualified this answer with the suggestion that launching 331 drones and missiles was disproportionately large.

As we have come to expect with foreign affairs, Labour has closed ranks with the government. John Healey, Labour’s shadow defence secretary, said this morning that “as a matter of principle that attack [on the Iranian consulate] was wrong”. He confirmed that the opposition would support the government if it chose to sanction Iran, and the shadow foreign secretary David Lammy has called for the government to do so.

Attention therefore turns to the government’s response this afternoon. Rishi Sunak will be looking to fashion a robust speech, one that asserts his control over foreign policy after mutters last week that Cameron was stealing the limelight. With that in mind, it will be worth noting whether the Prime Minister supports Iran’s right to retaliate after the consulate attack. If he does not, then another divide between Cameron and Sunak will have emerged.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: Being Foreign Secretary is harder than it looks for David Cameron]

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