Iran crisis: Boris Johnson warns Trump not to break international law by bombing cultural sites

Prime minister’s spokesperson backs assassination of Iran’s top general, saying ‘states have a right to take action such as this in self-defence’

The rising tensions between the US and Iran explained

Boris Johnson has spoken out against Donald Trump’s threat to bomb 52 Iranian cultural sites if the crisis escalates, in a rare crack in the transatlantic alliance.

“There are international conventions in place that prevent the destruction of cultural heritage,” the prime minister’s spokesperson said.

The warning comes as Mr Johnson prepares to convene a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) on Tuesday with senior ministers, officials and figures from the intelligence agencies into the escalating tensions with Tehran.

However, Downing Street declined to say whether such an attack would be a war crime – and gave stronger backing to the assassination of Qassem Soleimani than in Mr Johnson’s comments on Sunday.

Asked whether the UK accepted Washington’s justification for the attack, the spokesperson said: “States have a right to take action such as this in self-defence and the US have been clear that Soleimani was plotting imminent attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.”

On Sunday, Mr Johnson had stopped short of echoing his foreign secretary’s backing for Washington’s “right” to carry out the airstrike at Baghdad Airport, on Friday.

Following the non-binding vote of the Iraqi parliament for the removal of US troops, Mr Johnson also pressed for coalition forces – including the UK – to be allowed to remain in the country to continue operations against the Islamic State terror group during a phone call with his Iraqi counterpart Adil Abdul Mahdi​.

“We urge the Iraqi government to ensure that the coalition is able to continue its vital work countering this shared threat,” said the spokesperson.

But asked if the UK would regard attacks on cultural sites as a war crime, the spokesperson replied only that details of the international agreement were contained in the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

The prime minister also met with Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, defence secretary Ben Wallace and senior officials including the cabinet secretary at Downing Street this afternoon to discuss the crisis in Iran.

Following the meeting, Mr Raab said the government has changed its travel advice for UK citizens travelling to the region and that “we are going to be reinforcing in due course the royal navy protection for shipping in the Strait of Hormuz”.

He added: “Clearly our first priority is to make sure that UK nationals, citizens, shipping, diplomatic missions and military personnel are safe.

“On a diplomatic front our overwhelming message that the prime minister and I are conveying to our European and American counterparts, and also critically our partners in the Middle East, is the importance of de-escalating the tensions and finding a diplomatic way through this crisis.”

The PM’s spokesperson also brushed off suggestions that Mr Johnson was slow to respond to the situation during his luxury holiday in Mustique after Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, accused him of “sunning himself and drinking vodka martinis” in the Caribbean instead of dealing with the crisis.

“The prime minister was in contact with senior officials and senior ministers throughout the course of Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” the spokesperson insisted.

“The government’s position was set out by the foreign secretary on Friday morning and there were regular updates from both the foreign secretary and the defence secretary.”

Responding to criticism that the UK was not informed in advance of the plans to target General Soleimani, the spokesperson said: “We have a very close security partnership with the US. We have regular dialogue at every level.”

Iran’s announcement that it would no longer respect the terms of the international deal restricting its nuclear activities was described as “clearly extremely concerning”.

The UK was currently in discussions with fellow signatories about “next steps”, the spokesperson said, in comments which will fuel expectation of sanctions on Tehran if it presses ahead with nuclear enrichment for military purposes.

He added: “It is in everyone’s interests that the deal remains in place. It makes everyone safer by taking the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran firmly off the table.

“We have always said the nuclear deal is a reciprocal deal and in the light of Iran’s announcement we are urgently speaking to partners about next steps.”

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