The news signifies a high degree of British reluctance to get dragged into a conflict with Iran, which may have come as a surprise to US officials involved.
American diplomats made preliminary requests to launch military aircraft from American bases on two British islands, and to use the British military base in Cyprus. The Guardian reports that these requests did not signify an intention to use the bases against Iran anytime soon, but were instead meant to gauge Britain’s likelihood of granting such permission in case it became necessary.
But British officials rebuffed the requests on the grounds that a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be illegal.
“The UK would be in breach of international law if it facilitated what amounted to a pre-emptive strike on Iran," said a senior government source to the Guardian. "It is explicit. The government has been using this to push back against the Americans.”
The publication of this report on Thursday motivated the UK administration to respond on Friday. A spokeswoman for Prime Minister David Cameron explained that the communications between the U.S. and Great Britain were part of routine contingency planning.
“Obviously we are working closely, for example with the United States, as we have done in the past, regarding the use of UK bases,” she said, according to the Associated Press.
“We routinely speak to our counterparts in the United States. We don't get into details of those discussions, but we have in the past cooperated on the use of UK bases.”
Like the United Kingdom, the United States is reluctant to carry out a pre-emptive strike against Iran. But the military superpower may be drawn into conflict if Israel initiates an attack of its own.
Israel has adopted strong rhetoric against Iran this summer, when defense hawks pushed for a pre-emptive military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities -- something most Western powers hope to delay. The European Union and the United States recommend a continuation of tough sanctions and diplomatic isolation to pressure Tehran into relinquishing its nuclear ambitions.
In an attempt to set out guidelines for a fruitful negotiation, ongoing talks are underway between Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, and EU Foreign Affairs Chief Catherine Ashton.
The last several reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency -- which has long been denied full access to Iranian nuclear facilities -- suggest that the Islamic Republic is making slow progress toward nuclear weapons capability by pursuing higher uranium-enrichment levels and installing more centrifuges.
On the other hand, much of Iran's nuclear equipment is far from modern, and it is not certain that Tehran has decided to develop a nuclear weapon yet. Iran claims that its nuclear facilities are for peaceful purposes only, such as energy and medicine.
The UK repeated its assertion that sanctions are the best way to force Iran’s hand on the nuclear issue.
“The government does not believe that military action against Iran is the right option at this time, but we are not taking any option off the table,” said Cameron’s spokeswoman on Friday.