by Lloyd Russell Moyle
It took 12 years for global powers and Iran to achieve the great diplomatic success of the 21st century: a deal that exchanged relief from oil and banking sanctions imposed by the US for a curtailment of Tehran’s nuclear program to remove any practicable path towards a weapon.
In a stroke, Trump last week unilaterally “withdrew” from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and approved the most punitive sanctions regime the world has ever seen.
The new sanctions are extraterritorial, which means that they extend beyond US nationals and companies to any transaction made by any company with any Iranian company or bank with US dollars. The exceptions for medicine and food mean little because, without access to the international financial system, Iran has no means to pay for them except by smuggling cash out of the country.
Because the US dollar enjoys the status of the international reserve currency, Trump has in effect sanctioned every business on the planet that trades with Iran, including of course British firms.
The remaining signatories of the JCPOA—Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the EU—have said that they will adhere to the deal with which Iran has also complied. Breaking the JCPOA increases the chance of nuclear proliferation and a regional war, all in the service of regime change in Tehran, which National Security Advisor John Bolton, a leading architect of the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, has advocated for years.
It is vital that government works with the remaining signatories to the deal, particularly the EU, to protect UK economic interests against US sanctions, which are illegal under international law.
At home, the state should share in the risk of trade with Iran by using the Bank of England as a conduit for private trade in the same way Germany has done with its own central bank.
Multilaterally, Britain can work with the remaining JCPOA signatories, whose collective GDP is double that of the US, to implement a system to claw back dollars that get frozen by US clearing houses or fines levied by the US. The cost of this program can be offset by levying equal fines on US economic activity within the territories of the remaining JCPOA signatories.
Britain’s exposure to these sanctions is not insignificant. Britain manufactures many parts for Airbus, including the wings, and stood to benefit from a $25 billion deal signed between the company and Iran for 100 planes in January 2016. British insurance firms, including Lloyd’s of London and London P&I Club, underwrite billions in insurance for Iran’s massive fleet of tankers.
Trump is forcing Tehran to choose between economic ruin and nuclear proliferation. But he is also trampling over the UK’s economic sovereignty in the process. An amicable settlement of exceptions and waivers on sanctions is possible. But the UK government must first, jointly with our partners to the JCPOA, respond reciprocally and proportionately. China used this strategy on Trump to elicit US relief and financial assistance to support its electronics giant ZTE, which was hit with sanctions for trading with North Korea.
The clock is ticking. Trump has given the world until the November 4 to “wind down” its business with Iran to comply with US sanctions.
But I hold little hope that our government will act to support UK economic interests. In the statement to parliament on Trump’s “withdrawal” from the deal, the government stated that the UK would remain in the JCPOA. But Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and other Tory members filled up the time discussing Iran’s “malign behavior,” “malign activities,” “malign power,” and “malign influence.” Numerous Tory MPs in fact used the word “malign” 15 times throughout the debate, suggesting that the government had specifically briefed its members to abuse Iran, which has adhered to the deal, rather than discuss ways to keep the deal alive.
Iran is not a liberal democracy but a conservative religious establishment and not a place, as a gay man, I would choose to live. Similarly, I would not live in many Middle Eastern nations with poor human rights records, which the government would not call malign, for example Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
But my opinions about Iran’s human rights record, or for that matter its ballistic missile program or its support of groups that work against our allies in the region, are not relevant to the issue at hand because none of them falls under the auspices of the JPCOA.
It is therefore deeply dispiriting that in the wake of a dangerous Trumpian play against our economic interests that risks endangering world peace and the livelihoods of millions of Iranians, the government used its time to repeat the cynical talking points of the U.S. president and his national security advisor.
Compare this to French Foreign Minister Bruno Le Maire, who asked last week, “Do we want to be vassals who obey decisions taken by the United States while clinging to the hem of their trousers? Or do we want to say we have our economic interests?”
Or Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, who said: “This deal belongs to each and every one of us,” so we should not “let anyone dismantle this agreement.”
The UK does not have a serious government, so I expect nothing from it. Britain needs a government at this time that works within the rule-based system in the service of both British interests and global peace, which is exactly what the JPCOA was designed to do.
Lloyd Russell Moyle is an MP for Brighton Kemptown and a member of the Parliamentary International Development Committee. A version of this article also appeared in Evolve Politics.