Unexpected events have a way of crowding a world leader. Boris Johnson hasn’t even been elected leader of the UK Conservative Party, let alone moved in to 10 Downing Street.
Now the man who is expected to win that election on Tuesday and be appointed British prime minister on Wednesday faces the prospect of having to deal with a major diplomatic crisis with Iran that could spiral into military conflict.
On Friday, Iran seized a British-flagged oil tanker that was sailing through the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranian action was seen as retaliation for the British seizure earlier this month of an Iranian tanker, near Gibraltar, that had been suspected of violating sanctions on Syria.
The British government has already threatened “serious consequences” for Iran, a phrase often regarded as a euphemism for a military response. Mr Johnson comes to power with a carefully-cultivated image as a robust no-nonsense patriot, and will want to appear strong in what could be his first major test as a national leader.
But military and diplomatic realities will constrain a British response. The UK has consistently tried to pursue the path of negotiations with Tehran. As recently as last week (before the tanker seizure), Mr Johnson said he would oppose military action against Iran. And with the Royal Navy stretched very thin, it would be risky for the UK to take on Iran in its own backyard.
In any military clash with Iran, the UK would certainly look to the US for support. On Friday, Donald Trump intimated vaguely that such support would be forthcoming. But the US president has already demonstrated his reluctance to take military action against Iran. Last month, he abruptly cancelled bombing raids on Iran that had been planned as retaliation, after Iran had shot down an unmanned American drone.
Britain’s current dilemma can only be understood as part of a broader escalation of tensions between Iran and the west, in which the governments in Tehran and Washington are the central players.
The US has been pursuing a strategy of “maximum pressure”, which is designed to force Tehran into direct negotiations. In pursuit of this goal, the US has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear accord and reimposed swinging economic sanctions.
So far, the American strategy has not worked. Iran has refused to engage in direct talks and instead has resorted to a series of small-scale military provocations, including the tanker seizures and the attack on the American drone. The Iranian leadership may be relying on Mr Trump’s clear reluctance to get involved in another shooting war in the Middle East.
But Tehran is at risk of miscalculating. There are influential people in Washington — such as John Bolton, Mr Trump’s national-security adviser — who have long been advocates of a strike on Iran, Repeated Iranian provocations may tip the argument in their direction.
The seizure of the British-flagged oil tanker could also push the UK towards a more hawkish position on Iran, something that has been resisted by the EU. The Trump administration’s 2018 decision to pull out of the nuclear accord was rejected by Germany, France and the UK, who are cosignatories to the deal. They have collectively struggled to keep alive the prospect that Iran will reap economic benefits from continuing to respect the negotiated restraints on its nuclear programme.
But if the UK is looking to deliver “serious consequences” for Iran that stop short of a military response, it could abandon its efforts to preserve the Iran nuclear accord and instead join in the Trump administration’s efforts to strangle the Iranian economy.
A British decision to align its Iran policy with that of Washington, would probably finally kill off the EU’s efforts to keep the Iran nuclear accord alive. It would also represent the abandonment of a long-standing British foreign-policy position and might increase the chances of a military confrontation further down the road. It is a momentous choice for a new prime minister to face, in his first few days in office.
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