The UK shares America’s assessment of a “heightened threat” of attacks by Iran, Jeremy Hunt said Thursday, as he tried to bring an end to days of transatlantic division over the issue.
The government has raised the threat level for British troops and diplomats in Iraq and reviewed security arrangements at UK embassies in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The US had already pulled many diplomats out of its embassy in Baghdad and consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan out of fear of attacks by Iranian-backed Shia militias.
Britain did not go that far and UK diplomats remain at their posts in Iraq. But the raised threat level appeared to be a sign that the US and UK positions were converging.
“We share the same assessment of the heightened threat posed by Iran. As always we work closely with the US,” said Mr Hunt, the foreign secretary.
The UK and US militaries were publicly at odds earlier in the week after Maj Gen Chris Ghika, the British deputy head of the coalition against the Islamic State (Isil), said there was “no increased threat” from Iran in Iraq or Syria.
The American military contradicted his comments in an unusual moment of public division between the allied armed forces.
UK officials said Thursday that Maj Gen Ghika had been aware of the heightened threat levels but did not know if he was able to discuss the move publicly so he talked down the question of Iran.
Several Western officials said there was a growing consensus that Iran was looking for ways to retaliate to crippling US sanctions but was also trying to avoid sparking a full-blown war.
Western and Arab states are increasingly convinced Iran was responsible for sabotage attacks against four oil ships off the coast of the UAE, officials said, although no states have yet publicly accused Iran.
Saudi Arabia also said it held Iran responsible for a drone attack launched by Houthi rebels in Yemen against oil facilities inside the kingdom.
Saudi warplanes bombed Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, in response. Six civilians, including four children, were killed in the air strikes, the Houthis said.
Khalid bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s deputy defence minister and the younger brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, said the Houthis were “a tool that Iran's regime uses to implement its expansionist agenda in the region”.
All “non-emergency” US diplomats were withdrawn from American diplomatic facilities in Iraq, leaving only a skeleton staff behind. The move was met with skepticism by former US officials and European allies.
Brett McGurk, a former diplomat who led the US political effort against Isil, said it was the first time that such a dramatic draw down of American diplomats had taken place.
“Even when Isil was bearing down on Baghdad in 2014, the US did not trigger ordered departure in light of its serious repercussions,” he said.
The White House announced two weeks ago that it had intelligence Iran was planning attacks in the Middle East and has been increasing US forces to the region and raising overall threat levels since then.
The US has not made its intelligence public but the alarm was caused by images showing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard loading missiles onto small dhow boats, according to the New York Times.
The missiles had been assembled and US intelligence officials assessed they were meant to be fired from the boats, as opposed to being transported by sea to Iranian proxies in the region. One photograph has been declassified and could be released to the public.