Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson talks during the debate on the Early Parliamentary General Election Bill in the House of Commons, London. (AP/File)
Written by Mark Landler
Prime Minister Boris Johnson was on the Caribbean island of Mustique, still basking in the glow of his recent election victory, when the news came last Friday that President Donald Trump had ordered the killing of a powerful Iranian general — without tipping off, let alone consulting, his British ally.
The British government was livid about the lack of notice, according to current and former officials, particularly because there are about 400 British troops deployed in Iraq, and Britain has historically been more closely aligned with the United States on combat operations there than any other country.
But Johnson held his tongue until Sunday evening, after he returned to London. Even then, he issued a carefully worded four-paragraph statement that said he would not “lament” the killing of the general, Qassem Soleimani, warned Iran against reprisals and said nothing about Trump’s action.
It was a circumspect reaction for a politician not known for his circumspection, and it underscored Johnson’s dilemma as he confronts what is arguably the first foreign policy crisis of the post-Brexit era.
Britain is caught between its traditional alliance with Washington — one that Johnson promised voters he would deepen with a post-Brexit trade agreement — and the new, still-undefined, relationship with Europe. Johnson is walking a tightrope that officials said could become even more treacherous if Trump’s showdown with Iran opens a new trans-Atlantic rift.
“Fundamentally, we’re not aligned with the Americans on this,” said Simon Fraser, a former head of Britain’s Foreign Office, who has served in Iraq and Syria. “The risk is that the U.K. will find itself potentially exposed, if tensions arise between the major Europeans and the United States.”
So far, the Europeans are also working to keep tensions in check. In a joint statement released by the leaders of France, Germany and Britain, they expressed concern about “the negative role Iran has played in the region” but called on both sides to stop “the current cycle of violence in Iraq.”
British officials credited Johnson with influencing the language of that statement, which was more sympathetic toward the White House than separate statements from the French and Germans. But it is not clear that Johnson will get much credit for softening his fellow Europeans.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had already expressed frustration with Europe’s response, saying, “the Brits, the French, the Germans” had not “been as helpful as I wish that they could be.” Soleimani’s killing, he said, had bolstered European security, since the general had orchestrated assassinations in Europe.
On Monday, Britain continued to walk a fine line. The prime minister’s spokesman told reporters that targeting cultural sites in Iran, as Trump threatened to do if Iran retaliated, would violate international conventions on warfare. But the official was careful not to criticize the president directly.
“They are not going to give Boris Johnson any credit for trying to split the difference, even if he’s splitting it 80/20 in their favor,” said Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London, of the Trump administration. “To them, you’re either a vassal or an enemy.”
Shapiro has labeled Johnson’s ginger handling of the United States as “neo-poodleism,” a reference to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s unstinting support of George W. Bush during the Iraq War, which prompted critics to accuse him of acting like Bush’s poodle. In Blair’s case, Shapiro said, he was motivated by a genuine conviction that Iraq was a war worth fighting. In Johnson’s case, the loyalty is borne of more pragmatic considerations.
With Britain on track to leave the European Union by the end of this month, he said, Britain will find itself ever more dependent on its economic relationship with the United States. Facing a difficult trade negotiation with Washington, Johnson can ill afford to alienate Trump on Iran.
There is already evidence that Johnson has trimmed his sails out of deference to the president. Last year, when Iran seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, his predecessor, Theresa May, tried to muster a European-led naval force to protect ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz.
When Johnson replaced her in July, the European-led initiative fell apart and Britain ended up joining a naval force led by the United States, which Germany and France refused to join.
Not everybody believes Johnson will be forced to be subservient to the United States. Some noted that he had distanced himself from Trump on trade issues during the general election campaign.
“The politics of Brexit are more about a desire for increased sovereignty than a preference for Atlanticism over Europeanism,” said Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute.
One place where Johnson has stood with the Europeans is in defending the Iran nuclear deal. Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and Iran’s announcement Sunday that it would no longer abide by its limits to uranium enrichment seemed finally to kill it off.
But critics said Europe’s efforts to salvage the deal had been weak, in part because all three countries — not just Britain — have been hamstrung by their desire to maintain good relations with Washington.
Europeans responded to this latest crisis with a flurry of meetings. On Monday, NATO held an emergency meeting of its ambassadors. On Friday, European foreign ministers will gather in Brussels. The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said they would come up with a coordinated response to Iran.
“This could be the first step toward the end of this agreement, which would be a great loss,” Maas told a German radio station. “And so, we will weigh things up very, very responsibly.” He also said Trump’s threat to impose sanctions on Iraq if it forced out U.S. troops was “not very helpful.”
Fears about Britain’s security mounted on Monday after the Times of London quoted an unnamed commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as saying that British soldiers could be collateral damage in Iranian reprisals on U.S. soldiers. Iran’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Hamid Baeidinejad, disputed that report as “malicious, false propaganda.”
Johnson has suggested he wants to play a mediating role in the region. On Monday, he spoke with Iraq’s prime minister, Abdul Mahdi, to try to work out a solution on foreign troops. He has also spoken to Trump and European leaders.
While he has talked about being a bridge across the Atlantic, however, diplomats are skeptical.
“Frankly,” Fraser said, “the Germans and the French would rather deal with Washington on their own.”