Government ‘caught short’ by Iran crisis, says ex-national security chief

Written by Richard Johnstone on 7 January 2020 in News

Lord Peter Ricketts says ‘no civil servant can handle a crisis of this magnitude without hands-on political direction’

Photo: BBC Newsnight

The government was “caught short” by the crisis in the Middle East following the US killing of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani because senior people including prime minister Boris Johnson were still on holiday after Christmas, a former national security adviser has said.

Speaking to BBC Newsnight yesterday, Lord Peter Ricketts said that “there wasn't sufficient early recognition” that the killing of Soleimani was “a serious crisis and really dangerous for Western interests in the Middle East”.

Soleimani was killed by a US drone strike on 3 January, and Ricketts, who was national security adviser from 2010 to 2012 following a four-year spell as Foreign Office permanent secretary, said “the British government were caught short by this".


He added: “I'm glad to see the wheels are finally in motion and things are happening but we are four days downwind of this sudden and dramatic escalation.”

In a statement released when he arrived back in the UK on Sunday from a holiday on the Caribbean island of Mustique, Johnson said "we will not lament" the death of Soleimani. In a further joint statement with French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel, Johnson said: “There is now an urgent need for de-escalation. We call on all parties to exercise utmost restraint and responsibility. The current cycle of violence in Iraq must be stopped.”

Ricketts told Newsnight that “prime ministers are entitled to get a break”, adding that Johnson had clearly had a tough year.

But he said that “I hope that he was in very close touch” while on holiday as “no civil servant can handle a crisis of this magnitude without hands on political direction, if not from the prime minister then from a nominated deputy who is in London while the prime minster is away”.

He added: “Normally I would have expected the National Security [Council] would have met on the day of this strike to begin to coordinate the measures to ensure that Brits were protected and that we were doing everything that was necessary in the new circumstances.

“That may have been going on behind the scenes, but there wasn’t as far as I could see a collective discussion among senior ministers.”

Speaking to Sky News today, Ricketts added that “we may well look back on this in the future and say this is a turning point”.

He added: “If indeed the American troops are pulling out of Iraq, as I think they may well have to in the next year or so, and Afghanistan, and they have left in Syria as well, we are going to be in a time when Western troops are not on the ground at all in that region.

“We will see Russia taking a much larger position, we will see Iran taking a bigger role in Iraq and Western countries including Britain won’t be really affecting things. We will be in the Gulf countries with a lot of our military forces there, but we won’t be on the ground anywhere to the north of that. That feels to me like quite a big strategic change, and because of this the Iranians will take their time in how they retaliate [to Soleimani’s death], and therefore British people are potentially at greater risk. We have given the initiative to Iran to decide what they do next.”

In a further comment on Twitter, Ricketts added: “Don’t see this strike as leading to all-out war. But it does show how deeply divided West is on Iran. Regime change isn’t going to happen. We need to get back to well thought-out containment. UK and French foreign ministers should get to Washington asap to consider how to do so”.

About the author

Richard Johnstone is CSW's deputy and online editor and tweets as @CSW_DepEd.

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