May 16, 2019
Britain has raised the threat level for UK forces and diplomats in Iraq because of what sources say is a heightened security risk from Iran, Sky News can reveal.
The UK has also put its personnel and their families in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar on an increased state of alert.
The UK assessment appears to be similar to US claims of a heightened threat amid escalating tensions between Donald Trump’s administration and Tehran.
One Whitehall source said Britain believes there is an increased likelihood of Iran or its proxies taking action against British, US or other allied interests in the region in a way that can be plausibly denied so as to avoid triggering an all-out war.
The targets would most likely be soft such as oil infrastructure or other civilian targets, the source said.
The aim would be to cause disruption but not to do something that could be directly linked back to the regime and therefore trigger a hard US response.
The source said the goal would be to signal Iranian anger at renewed US sanctions on Iran, which are hurting, and to push for them to be eased.
This analysis was confirmed by two other sources with knowledge of the UK understanding of the situation.
The Ministry of Defence raised the threat level for service personnel in Iraq before a senior British military officer played down warnings of any new Iranian risk posed to British, US and other forces in the country, according to an informed source.
The comments on Tuesday by Major General Chris Ghika, the top UK military officer in the US-led coalition against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, were seen by a number of media outlets as a sign of a rift between the threat assessments of the UK and the US on Iran.
But the informed source told Sky News that Major General Ghika had been aware of the increased security risk as he had seen a number of intelligence reports setting out the situation.
When asked to comment at a media briefing, he had not known whether he was authorised to disclose this information, which is why he instead struck a more cautious tone, the source said.
The heightened security risk spreads beyond Iraq, with British officials and a number of civilians working in sectors such as the oil industry in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait also put on a heightened state of alert because of the Iranian threat, sources said.
Contingency plans in case the UK decides it has to remove personnel from all or any of these countries have started to be activated, though this is only at a very early stage and is currently precautionary in case the crisis escalates, a number of sources said.
In one example, families based in Kuwait have been advised against weekend days out in remote areas because of the heightened risk.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Iran unit is in “full crisis mode” because of the increased threat from Iran and the US response, with the movement of an American aircraft carrier task group, B-52 bombers and a missile defence system into the Gulf region.
Sky News understands that the government’s National Security Council discussed Iran as a “hot topic” on Tuesday.
A lot of diplomatic efforts by Britain are going on behind the scenes to try to resolve the standoff between the United States and Iran peacefully.
Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, spoke on Wednesday evening by phone with his Omani counterpart. Oman has good relations with Iran.
They “exchanged views on what is going on”, a Whitehall source said.
The foreign secretary urged Oman to use its influence to push for calm, the source said.
“We all want to avoid escalation,” the source added.
The Foreign Office and the MoD declined to comment.