The US is “open” to discussions but is “just as prepared to deliver a forceful response” if Iran hits back after the killing of General Soleimani, the US defence secretary has said.
Mark Esper has told a news conference: “We’re seeking a diplomatic solution – but first this will require Iran to de-escalate.
“It will require the regime to come to the table with the goal of preventing further bloodshed and it will require them to cease their malign activities throughout the region.”
Image: Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the US had ‘reached the point where we had to act in self-defence’
He added: “We are open to having this discussion but we are just as prepared to deliver a forceful response to defend our interests.”
And he said: “The American people should know that their safety is in the hands of the strongest, most capable military in the world.”
Pointing the finger at Iran, he said “we’re not the ones who have escalated this…”, adding: “It’s been Iran and its proxies… we reached the point where we had to act in self-defence.”
“The ball is in their court, what they do next will determine what happens in the subsequent moves,” he said.
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Image: Defence Secretary Ben Wallace updated MPs before a security council meeting
His comments followed the UK taking “urgent measures” to protect Britons and its interests in the Gulf after the killing of Iran’s top general.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the House of Commons that Qassem Soleimani was “no friend of the UK or our allies” and criticised Iran’s record on human rights, including holding dual nationals in jail.
He said its actions had a “seriously destabilising impact in the region”.
Mr Wallace said: “The Department for Transport are reviewing the threat state and advice to Red Ensign shipping on a daily basis. Supported by the Ministry of Defence, we will issue guidance imminently.
“At the same time, defence are changing the readiness of our forces in the region – including helicopters and ships on stand-by to assist if the need arises.”
The US government is also warning ships travelling across Middle Eastern waterways there is the “possibility of Iranian action against US maritime interests”.
It is braced for a “tit-for-tat” response to the killing.
Mr Wallace said the UK is working with the other E3 countries – France and Germany – to restore the Iran nuclear deal.
‘We urge all parties to de-escalate’
He said: “Her Majesty’s government urges Iran to return to the normal behaviour of the country it aspires to be and resist the urge to retaliate.
“None of us wants conflict, none of us wants our citizens, our friends and our allies to be put at risk.”
Mr Wallace said the UK government will look at the implications of the Iraqi parliament’s vote which called for the expulsion of foreign troops.
But he said the government should allow them to remain, reminding them the coalition was there at the request of the Iraqi government to deal with the threat of Islamic State.
He said: “Our commitment to Iraq’s stability and sovereignty is unwavering and we urge the Iraqi government to ensure the coalition is able to continue our work countering this shared threat.”
He also said Boris Johnson had been speaking to leaders including Emmanuel Macron, Donald Trump and Angela Merkel for several days.
Corbyn accuses PM of being too scared to stand up to Trump
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the questions he set out to the prime minister on Friday had not been answered and accused Mr Johnson of hiding behind his defence secretary.
He asked if Mr Johnson was scared to stand up to Mr Trump because he “hitched his wagon to a Trump trade deal”.
He said: “This assassination puts British troops and civilians in danger.”
He called the killing of the Iranian general illegal and asked how the government could see it was legal if they did.
The defence secretary said it is for the US to explain if it was illegal or not and added: “From the information and intelligence that I have seen, what I could say is that it is clear there was a case for self-defence to be made about an individual who had come to Iraq to co-ordinate murder and attacks on US citizens.”
But Mr Wallace repeated the earlier defence of the PM, and said: “This prime minister actually believes in a cabinet government and letting the members of the cabinet who are responsible for the policy to come to the House to be able to answer the questions around the policy matter.”
Image: An aerial view of the Azadi tower in Tehran during the funeral of Qassem Soleimani
Mr Johnson will lead a meeting of the National Security Council this afternoon, which was moved from its original time slot this morning and now follows the briefing to MPs.
It comes as NATO says it will be moving personnel out of Iraq due to safety concerns.
A NATO official said: “In everything that we do, the safety of our personnel is paramount. As such, we have temporarily suspended our training on the ground, and we are taking all precautions necessary to protect our people.
Pompeo says ‘international law’ will be observed
“This includes the temporary repositioning of some personnel to different locations both inside and outside of Iraq. NATO maintains a presence in Iraq. And we are prepared to continue our training and capacity-building when the situation permits.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held firm to the American line, saying “we got it right”.
He also said he was confident that should Iran “make another bad choice”, US President Donald Trump would respond “in a decisive, strong manner”.
US defence secretary Mark Esper told CNN the US is “not looking to start a war on Iran but we are prepared to finish one”.
British ministers including Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Mr Wallace, have sought to distance the UK from the US suggesting cultural sites might be targeted as part of US strikes on Iran.
Mr Pompeo said every target was being reviewed and the US would conduct itself inside the international laws of war.
Ahead of the council meeting, Mr Johnson spoke to Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “The leaders discussed the situation in Iraq following the death of Qaseem Soleimani. They agreed on the importance of reducing tensions and finding a diplomatic way through the current crisis, and of continuing to work together in the fight against terror.
“They agreed that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon and must comply with the terms of the nuclear deal.”
Source : Sky News