With British Prime Minister Boris Johnson entering into his first full week in power, the nation is facing a potentially gathering storm following Iran’s recent seizure of a UK-flagged tanker. This is a key challenge for the new UK government, including inexperienced Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, not just because it will have to navigate the spat with Tehran, but also complex, difficult diplomacy with the United States and EU at a time when both alliances are under strain.
The timing of this possible crisis is far from ideal for London. For it comes not just with last Wednesday’s change of government, which will have a precarious hold on power given the tight balances in the House of Commons, but also at a time when Brexit deadlines are mounting with the United Kingdom scheduled to leave the Brussels based club in less than 100 days.
Last week, Theresa May’s now departed administration decided that the best next step will be to “put together a European-maritime protection mission to support safe passage of crew and cargo” in the Strait of Hormuz where one fifth’s of the world’s oil, a quarter of liquefied natural gas, and half a trillion of trade passes. Within this diplomatic-speak lies a potentially very important UK decision in favour of Europe’s continued support for the Iran nuclear deal.
It is therefore quite possible that, in coming days, the new Johnson government will find ways for the European maritime force proposal to be sidelined, or potentially joined up, in some way, with US assets...
Inevitably, this has not proved popular with Atlanticist supporters of Johnson. Take the example of former defence secretary Michael Fallon who challenged the government to declare that it would make sense for Washington to be included in the proposed force if it wished to join.
May’s team admitted last week that the United States had first requested the United Kingdom contribute to a US-led maritime protection force on June 24, leading to a formal request on June 30. And it is therefore quite possible that, in coming days, the new Johnson government will find ways for the European maritime force proposal to be sidelined, or potentially joined up, in some way, with US assets, and potentially those of other forces too, including Nato.
What this highlights is that, underlying the ship’s seizure last week by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, there is a much bigger, geo-strategic issue in play. That is, the fallout of Donald Trump’s decision last year that he will no longer recertify the Iranian nuclear deal, one of the biggest foreign policy choices yet of his term of office, which Johnson opposed when he was foreign secretary from 2016-2018.
Trump’s decision was immediately countermanded by French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and May, who declared their nations will not just remain signatories to the nuclear agreement, but will work “collectively on a broader framework” with Tehran. For instance, Macron has indicated multiple times that Paris and other willing partners “will work collectively on a new deal covering not just “nuclear activity, the post-2025 period, ballistic activity, and stability in the Middle-East, notably Syria, Yemen, and Iraq”.
‘Ready for the absolute worst’
Moving forward, while European allies would welcome the Trump team re-engaging with Tehran, this appears unlikely in the immediate future. Indeed, Trump asserted last week that Washington may be nearer war than negotiations with Tehran and that “we’re ready for the absolute worst”.
The ball therefore remains in the court of the continent’s leaders to try to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal, or remnants of it. One key uncertainty here, however, is what exact stance the unpredictable Johnson will now take.
Here the new prime minister is well aware that a key, growing challenge for Europe is not just Trump’s increased stridency against Iran, but also that President Hassan Rouhani has indicated his own weakening commitment to the 2015 agreement. Rouhani, for instance, has said Tehran will not reverse its decision to increase uranium enrichment beyond the limits set by the accord.
This shifting sand context makes Johnson’s decision-making more complicated. Moreover, amid his vulnerability in the House of Commons, he must also navigate the potentially difficult domestic politics of this issue; plus the Stena Impero seizure; and also the prior issue of the UK’s decision to apprehend only days earlier the Iranian-flagged Grace 1 ship in Gibraltar for allegedly evading sanctions.
While some leading Opposition Labour Party figures have condemned Iran for its actions, including Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, others warn of a slide to potential war. Take the example of Labour’s Shadow Justice Minister Richard Burgon who has told Johnson not to become Trump’s “sidekick” in a potential conflict that he argues could be worse than the 2003 Iraq War.
Taken overall, the new prime minister is therefore facing into a very tricky situation, on multiple domestic and foreign fronts, where his political judgement in Downing Street faces a big, early test. Not only must he try to de-escalate tensions with Tehran, while smoothing ties with Washington and key EU allies, he must also do this when his grip on power is precarious which — with Brexit challenges mounting — could yet trigger a general election.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.