Leader: The real special relationship

The Iranian crisis has revealed a quiet truth: the UK’s foreign policy remains more aligned with Europe than the US.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Donald Trump’s presidency has been defined by recklessness. But no act has appeared more reckless than the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander, by a US drone strike on 3 January. The consequences were immediate and grave: Iran fired missile strikes at two US airbases in Iraq, as well as announcing that it would no longer respect the obligations of the 2015 nuclear deal; the Iraqi parliament voted for the expulsion of all foreign troops from the country; US-led forces halted their military campaign against Islamic State; and at least 56 people were killed in a crush at Soleimani’s funeral on 7 January.

Soleimani, who was the head of the Quds Force, the foreign wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, was one of the Middle East’s most ruthless warlords. Through Iranian militias and proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Israel, he was responsible for the deaths of many thousands of civilians in pursuit of Iran’s expansionist ambitions. But this bloodstained record did not make his assassination necessary or wise. Mr Trump’s predecessors, Barack Obama and George W Bush, contemplated targeting Soleimani but concluded that the risks were too great.

Mr Trump and US secretary of state Mike Pompeo have provided no compelling evidence to justify their claim that Soleimani posed an “imminent” threat to American lives. As Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, writes this week, Soleimani’s assassination has strengthened Iran’s theocratic regime, which only last month faced mass unrest over fuel price rises. Mr Trump has gifted Iran an opportunity to divert attention from its own domestic tribulations.

For Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the Iranian crisis represents the greatest geopolitical test of his short premiership. He did not curtail his holiday on the Caribbean island of Mustique, or make any statement on Soleimani’s death, until almost three days after the US strike.

The affair has also exposed the incoherence and contradictions of British foreign policy in the age of Brexit. Under Mr Johnson, the UK government has lauded the “special relationship” with the US as compensation for leaving the European Union. But Soleimani’s killing has exposed this supposedly cherished alliance as the polite fiction it has long been. The UK was not informed in advance of the strike and its response has sharply diverged from that of the US.

Rather than endorsing Mr Trump’s action, Britain joined Germany and France in calling for “all parties to exercise utmost restraint” and emphasising the “urgent need for de-escalation”. After the US president threatened to target Iranian cultural and historic sites, Downing Street warned that there were “international conventions in place that prevent the destruction of cultural heritage”. Not for the first time, Mr Johnson’s Atlanticist rhetoric has collided with the reality of Britain’s multilateral Europeanist foreign policy.

In common with the EU, the UK has previously criticised other unilateral moves by Mr Trump, such as US withdrawal from both the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Agreement on climate change, the removal of American troops from northern Syria and the betrayal of the Kurds, and the transfer of the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The so-called special relationship with the US, and the wider Anglosphere, were once proposed by Brexiteers as substitutes for EU membership. In the era of Mr Trump it is obvious that they cannot be. The EU, for all its defects and limitations, is the world’s fore-most alliance of democracies and the only transnational regional power with the capability to challenge the US and China. Even as the UK prepares to end its EU membership, geopolitical reality is forcing it to recognise that a Europeanist foreign policy will – and must – endure.

This article appears in the 10 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran