Experts fear Boris Johnson, the new prime minster, will fall in behind US President Donald Trump‘s hostile US stance towards Tehran, despite an opportunity for Britain to forge an influential position as a broker following its withdrawal from the European Union.
In the meantime, tension is growing in the Strait of Hormuz after the UK sent a second warship to protect British vessels and Iran rejected plans for a European naval mission.
“There is an opportunity to have a new approach to Iran and that is exactly what Tehran is hoping for: to try and use this crisis over the tankers to recalibrate the relationship in a positive way for the new prime minister,” said Sanam Vakil, senior research fellow at the Chatham House think-tank in London.
Iran’s response in the tanker dispute is viewed as part of a pushback against Trump’s unilateral decision to ditch the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal and embark upon a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against Tehran.
Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the tanker standoff offers Johnson an opportunity to influence US policy.
“Obviously, there’s the immediate crisis brewing over the two tankers which Johnson inherits from his predecessor – but there’s a much bigger issue about the march to war with Iran and the possible collapse of the nuclear deal,” he said.
“Trump is clearly stuck on the Iranian issue and Johnson could make himself useful by offering a way out.”
I do not see any immediately escalatory behaviour by Tehran – they are looking for an off-ramp and to negotiate to get their own tanker back.
However, the mood music does not appear good with initial signs indicating that Johnson is more likely to simply fall in line with US policy.
Barnes-Dacey said: “My sense at the moment is that Johnson is doubling down on a pseudo-populist ‘UK first’ approach that is going to create tensions with the EU and provide every incentive for him to align himself very closely with Trump.”
Relations between the UK and Iran plummeted when the British Royal Navy seized Grace 1, an Iranian tanker, near Gibraltar on suspicion that it was breaching EU sanctions by carrying oil destined for Syria.
Iran then seized a British-flagged tanker, Stena Impero, prompting the UK to dispatch naval vessels to the Gulf in a move Tehran called “provocative”.
The tanker seizures come against a broader background of growing hostility between Iran and the United States, raising concerns that a small miscalculation could ignite a firestorm.
Vakil believes that while it is easy to imagine a military clash, Tehran will try hard to avoid this.
“I do not see any immediately escalatory behaviour by Tehran – they are looking for an off-ramp and to negotiate to get their own tanker back.”
The Iranian confrontation has so far assumed a low profile on the Johnson government’s agenda, largely because the UK political environment remains consumed by Brexit.
“That means that Johnson doesn’t have to politically stand up and address the issue and find a way out,” said Barnes-Dacey.
“But there is a broader escalatory path that we are seeing at the moment which means that the threat of something going pop in the Gulf hangs over the region.
“The tensions are such that any misguided or unintentional spark could provoke a wider unravelling – which could be very dangerous.”
However, recent comments by the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani congratulating Johnson on becoming PM suggest a conciliatory line may be emerging from Tehran.
As Iran blames Trump for influencing the UK’s seizure of Grace 1, it is likely the Stena Impero is a pawn in a bigger game to strengthen its wider diplomatic leverage.
Vakil said that while both Iran and the US are “misreading” each other, Tehran understands the context in which the UK finds itself as it reassesses its foreign policy priorities because of Brexit, and is seeking to appeal to Johnson’s “higher ambitions”.
“Tehran wants to prevent the UK from using Iran as the issue that will restore the transatlantic alliance, and so to prevent that from happening it is trying to communicate directly to Boris Johnson that the UK could potentially have a special role to play in preserving the JCPOA, and thereby improving British foreign policy post-Brexit.
“They are signalling that the UK can be a bridge between Tehran and Brussels and between Washington and Brussels.”
The Iranians have become disillusioned with European signatories to the JCPOA, who have failed to offer a solution to the US sanctions suffocating their economy.
Barnes-Dacey said: “By and large the Iranians have given up on thinking that the Europeans can deliver anything meaningful to offset the difficulties they are facing under by the US ‘maximum pressure’ campaign; so there is perhaps some Iranian thinking that there is an opening with Johnson.”
A key indicator, therefore, will be how Johnson reads and responds to Iranian signals.
The new British PM is faced with a choice of aligning with Trump – with whom he wishes to agree upon a rapid post-Brexit trade deal – or living up to the Brexit vision he has presented in public of a reinvigorated “global Britain”.
Academics have warned against aligning completely with Washington on Iran, which would further jeopardise European efforts to keep the peace.
Barnes-Dacey said: “The Iranians are smart and read Johnson well, and I think they undoubtedly probably expect him to align the UK with Trump given the broader dynamics in UK politics – but they have also dealt with him in the past, which could also suggest to Tehran that perhaps he could be constructive in trying to take things forward.
“He faces a real dilemma. Does Johnson position himself as leader of a global diplomatically engaged Britain that stays connected to Europe and leverages its transatlantic ties for greater gain, or does he double down on a pitch which essentially puts the UK in opposition to the EU and very much in line with the Trump-led US?
“My strong sense is that he will go for the latter. Right now he is not looking to build ties with Europeans.”