Britain must not be risk-averse in the Middle East – it is right to stand robust when our interests are ­challenged

WE ignore events in the Middle East at our absolute peril.

Global leaders know only too well the knock-on effects of decisions affecting that region.

General Qasem Soleimani who was killed by a US Reaper drone strike
AP:Associated Press
Former Conservative Minister Tobias Ellwood believes we have a duty to robustly defend ourselves in the Middle East

It should come as no surprise that Friday’s US Reaper drone strike on the Middle East’s most influential ­military leader made the world sit up.

It has emerged in the past 24 hours that there was a British plan to assassinate General Qasem Soleimani in 2007 — but it was stopped at the time by then Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

Soleimani was planning terror attacks against UK troops in Basra, southern Iraq. We clearly don’t know every detail behind that ­decision — but should always be clear about our objectives.

Britain must not be risk-averse. We must stand robust when UK interests are ­challenged.

Mounting tensions

Back in July last year, Tehran’s top diplomat was summoned to the Foreign Office after a British-flagged tanker was seized off the coast of Iran. Intelligence officials also confirmed the country was behind a cyberattack on Parliament in June 2017, compromising nearly 100 MPs’ email accounts.

Tensions have also been mounting ever since British Iranian dual citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained in April 2016.

From interrupting international shipping in the Strait of Hormuz to drone attacks on Saudi oil installations and the recent rocket attacks ­killing US personnel in Iraq, Soleimani has been the ­principal architect of Iranian ­aggression against the West.

But now the decision to kill Soleimani has been carried out, it prompts the question: What will happen next?

Up there with bin Laden

For as totemic events go, Soleimani’s removal is up there with the killing of Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. All were leaders with cult-like followings, determined to flout international law and kill others to pursue their agendas. And all were ­proscribed by the US as terrorists.

What makes Soleimani’s case unique is that he was a senior government official representing a country rather than a terrorist cause.

Soleimani has been of interest to the US for more than 15 years.

As Iran’s Quds Force commander (the equivalent of the CIA and SAS rolled into one), he answered directly to the Supreme Leader and was individually responsible for re-shaping and darkening much of the Middle East.

Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Libya and, to a lesser extent, Bahrain have all suffered prolonged internal strife thanks to the activities of Soleimani and his Quds Force.

After a cursory glance at the state of any of these countries, it’s understandable why both the US and Britain have called for an end to Iran’s proxy interference.

As Iran’s Quds Force commander (the equivalent of the CIA and SAS rolled into one), Soleimani answered directly to the Supreme Leader
Getty – Contributor
As totemic events go, Soleimani’s removal is up there with the killing of Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
AP:Associated Press
Tensions with Britain have also been mounting ever since British Iranian dual citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained in April 2016
PA:Press Association

A decorated veteran from the Iran-Iraq war, Soleimani was soon promoted up the ranks of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the military wing, separate from the ­Iranian Army. As head of the Quds Force, he was able to recruit and train ­paramilitaries, buy weapons, cajole governments and kill competitors.

His activities did not go unnoticed. Once the Quds Force were labelled a “foreign ­terrorist organisation” by the US last April, it was only a matter of time before a Reaper drone would be ­tracking him.

It was believed another ­terrorist attack was imminent, so the US took the shot.

As the mastermind of the regime’s foreign political ambitions, with impressive connections, Soleimani will be hard to replace. This is a colossal setback for the regime.

We should not underestimate Iran’s ability and desire to proportionately retaliate, probably just below the threshold of war.

The West must be on guard. This is the boldest move by the US since the Iraq invasion of 2003. But this “success” is at best momentary.

Bruised by brazen attack

How does it fit into a wider long-term strategy?

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has rightly called for “de-escalation”, but with 3,000 US troops now heading to the Middle East, the diplomatic channels will have to work overtime if immediate ­tensions are to be reduced — let alone a more durable long-term solution secured.

The US has made clear its intentions to no longer tolerate Iran’s meddling in neighbouring Middle East countries.

With Soleimani now out of the picture, angry Revolutionary Guard generals will be clamouring to fill the very real vacuum he has left and, no doubt, avenge his death.

But the regime must finally listen to its people, who will feel bruised by such a brazen attack but did not endorse all of Soleimani’s activities.

Indeed, the regime’s aggressive foreign policy has long been out of sync with the wishes of the Iranian people, who yearn for a better ­relationship with the outside world and a more tolerant and democratic government.

Iran’s economy is flagging, unemployment is on the rise.

Large numbers regularly demonstrate in cities across the country to express dissatisfaction with the theocratic regime and Supreme Leader.

The wider fundamental issue preventing improved security and prosperity in the Middle East today stems from a supposed clash of the Sunni and Shia worlds. There is no doctrinal difference between their theological approaches to the religion — they both believe in the centrality of the Prophet Mohammed.

Instead they are promoted as political banners to further ethnic division, which Soleimani was adept at exploiting.

Only time will tell if the Iranian regime will listen to its people and re-assess its appetite to destabilise the Middle East.


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