By Deborah Haynes, foreign affairs editor, and Alix Culbertson, news reporter
Britain has reduced staff at its embassies in Iran and Iraq to a minimum level amid security concerns after the killing of a top Iranian general in a US airstrike, Sky News understands.
The withdrawal of the diplomats from both countries is a precautionary step rather than based on specific intelligence of a threat, according to diplomatic sources.
The respective ambassadors – Rob Macaire in Tehran and Stephen Hickey in Baghdad – will remain in place.
A spokesperson for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said: “The safety and security of our staff is of paramount importance and we keep our security posture under regular review. Both our embassies in Baghdad and Tehran remain open.”
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It comes as Boris Johnson tried to distance Britain from the US as Donald Trump ramped up his rhetoric against Iran, threatening to target cultural sites.
Britain and its allies are bracing for possible retaliatory attacks in the region by Iran and its proxies in revenge for the assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani as he was being driven out of Baghdad airport last week.
Iran’s supreme leader vowed “severe revenge” but first declared three days of national morning, which conclude on Monday night.
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It is also understood that the Foreign Office has entered “crisis mode” in the wake of the Soleimani killing. This is a formal status that typically happens during an emergency situation.
In this instance, it means staff working on the Iran-US situation are operating out of a crisis centre at the Foreign Office’s headquarters on Whitehall.
A special command structure has been activated and diplomats are working on shifts to be able to man the office for longer periods.
Mr Johnson went against US president Donald Trump on Monday by pointing out the international rules of war, and supporting the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran – which the US pulled out of in 2018.
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Mr Trump has threatened to target 52 Iranian sites, including ones of cultural importance, after Tehran threatened to retaliate over Friday’s killing of Maj Gen Soleimani in a US drone strike.
Iran’s foreign minister said the targeting cultural sites would constitute a war crime and likened it to Islamic State’s tactics.
The US president defended his threat and said if the Iranians were allowed to “torture and maim our people… use roadside bombs and blow up our people” then the US could target cultural sites.
However, Mr Johnson’s spokesman said the UK had a different opinion.
“There are international conventions in place which prevent the destruction of cultural heritage,” he said.
He added that the government was urgently speaking to its allies about the nuclear deal after Iran said it would abandon limitations on its uranium enrichment.
“Iran’s announcement is clearly extremely concerning. It is in everyone’s interests that the deal remains in place,” Mr Johnson’s spokesman said.
“It makes the world safer by taking the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran firmly off the table.
“We have always said the nuclear deal is a reciprocal deal, and in light of Iran’s announcement we are urgently speaking to partners about next steps.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab echoed the prime minister’s statements later, after a meeting of senior ministers to discuss the crisis.
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He said: “We have been very clear that cultural sites are protected under international law and we would expect that to be respected.
“Clearly our first priority is to make sure that UK nationals, citizens, shipping, diplomatic missions and military personnel are safe.
“We’ve changed our travel advice, we are going to be reinforcing in due course the Royal Navy protection for shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.
“On a diplomatic front our overwhelming message that the Prime Minister and I are conveying to our European and American counterparts, and also critically our partners in the Middle East, is the importance of deescalating the tensions and finding a diplomatic way through this crisis.”
Mr Trump later tweeted: “IRAN WILL NEVER HAVE A NUCLEAR WEAPON!”
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The president has threatened to impose sanctions on Iraq after its parliament voted to expel all 5,000 US troops from the country – but the prime minister’s spokesman said the UK had no such plans.
Defending Mr Johnson’s failure to return from his Caribbean holiday early to deal with the crisis, the spokesman said the prime minister was in contact with senior officials the entire time.
In Tehran, the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had a close relationship with the general, wept over the casket during Monday’s funeral.
Iranian police said more than a million people were on the streets, many sobbing loudly, as they mourned the man who guided Iran’s proxy militias abroad, ranging from Hezbollah in Lebanon to armed factions in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Source : Sky News