Dominic Raab, Britain's new head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has argued that in a world of "rapidly evolving threats" NATO is "more important than ever". While he did not explicitly elaborate as to the nature of the "rapidly evolving threats", in what was a wide-ranging speech on UK-Canadian relations, Raab did later go on to speak about the need to avoid further war in the Middle East.
Raab's speech followed discussions with his Canadian counterpart, François-Philippe Champagne, during which he and Champagne discussed their "shared concern" about tensions in Iraq and Iran.
"I think we all agree, war in the Middle East would only benefit Daesh and the other terrorist groups", he said. During his speech Raab didn’t address the role that recent US strikes in Iraq have played in escalating the threat of full scale war in the region.
Instead he reserved his condemnation for Iran's retaliation against coalition forces based in Iraq. Raab characterised Iran's ballistic missile strikes, which did not kill anyone, as "reckless and dangerous" and called upon the Western Asian country to urgently de-escalate and "return to diplomatic dialogue".
US and Iran Have Been Locked in a Rising Spiral of Violence
On 29 December 2019 US missile strikes in Iraq and Syria killed at least 25 members of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) which have been integrated into the Iraqi military and who have been fighting Daesh. 55 people were also wounded. The PMU members originated from the Kata’ib Hizbollah militia.
The US Department of Defence put out a statement saying that the killings were in response to "repeated Kata’ib Hizbollah (KH) attacks on Iraqi bases that host Operation Inherent Resolve coalition forces, US forces have conducted precision defensive strikes against five KH facilities in Iraq and Syria that will degrade KH’s ability to conduct future attacks against OIR coalition forces."
The DOD also blamed the death of a US military contractor in Iraq on the PMU members.
Iraqi PM Adel Abdul-Mahdi condemned the strikes "as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a dangerous escalation that threatens the security of Iraq and the region".
A procession of those mourning the deaths of the Iraqi soldiers ended up at the US embassy at Baghdad on 30 December 2019, where people protested the US airstrikes. Some of the protesters smashed through a main door and set fire to a reception area, and US troops responded by firing tear gas. No US personnel were injured at the embassy, which is heavily fortified.
On 31 December US President Donald Trump blamed the protest on Iran, tweeting that the country will "will pay a very big price" for any damage or loss of life. "This is not a warning, it is a threat," he said, followed by "Happy New Year".
On New Year's Day Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, responded to Trump's threats saying:
"First, there is no damn thing you can do, and second, If you were logical —which you’re not— you’d see that your crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan… have made nations hate you."
US Assassinates Iranian Major General and Iran Retaliates With Ballistic Missile Strikes Against Iraqi-based US Forces
On 3 January 2020 the US carried out further airstrikes, this time killing at least six people including Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the PMU. Trump justified the assassination of Soleimani saying that he was "plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him".
In an interview with the BBC on Sunday Raab defended the US saying that it has a right to self-defence. He rejected the idea that the US strikes were war crimes and argued that "It was General Soleimani's job description to engage proxies, militias across not just Iraq but the whole region, not just to destabilise those countries but to attack Western countries". The UK, German, and French governments released a joint statement following the Iranian retaliation. They also focused the blame for the escalating violence on Iran. However, they did "call on all parties" to "exercise utmost restraint and responsibility". "The current cycle of violence in Iraq must be stopped", they said.
Iranian government officials vowed revenge for the assassination of General Soleimani which was described as an "act of war". The Iraqi government condemned attack which killed Soleimani and its parliament unanimously passed a resolution demanding the withdrawal of all foreign troops. On the evening of 6 January the Iranian government fired ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases housing US and coalition forces, in response to the assassination of Soleimani, though no deaths were reported as a result.
NATO Condemns Iranian 'Provocations' But While Also Calling for De-Escalation and Pulling Suspending Iraqi Operations
On 6 January NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg came out with a statement saying the military alliance stood by the US and its actions. Stolsberg said NATO was united in its condemnation for Iran's support for "a variety of different terrorist groups" and said Iran must "refrain from further violence and provocations". However, he did also emphasise that a new conflict "would be in no-one's interest". NATO has a military presence in Iraq as part of an anti-Daesh coaliton, which includes training of Iraqi military forces, however Stolsberg announced that training would be suspended following the recent increase in tensions. Some NATO troops also being withdrawn from the country.