by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
In a deliberate move that has potentially significant implications for the future of Iran-UK relations, the British government has seized an oil supertanker carrying Iranian oil off the cost of Gibraltar. The British has used the excuse that the tanker was heading toward Syria and thus violated the EU sanctions on Syria. The EU ban, however, covers only jet fuel and not crude oil export to Syria. Praised by National Security Advisor John Bolton, the tanker’s seizure has reportedly been undertaken per the request of the U.S. government, which follows the stated objective of “zero oil exports” by Iran. Tehran, meanwhile, has denounced the move as both unlawful and dangerous and has vowed to take retaliatory action.
Unless the tanker is soon released—a Gibraltar judge has allowed a 14-day seizure—UK-Iran relations will be plunged into a full-blown crisis. The British ambassador in Tehran has already been summoned by the foreign ministry three times and may soon get booted out of the country if London does not release the tanker. London’s provocative move will likely have a negative knock-on effect on broader European diplomacy toward Iran in light of Europe’s current, albeit feeble, struggle to salvage the Iran nuclear deal after the unilateral U.S. exit in May 2018. Adding more strain to an already damaged relationship, due primarily to Europe’s failure to live up to its commitments under the nuclear deal, London’s action means that Europe will be less able to persuade Iran to abide by its nuclear commitments, given Tehran’s determination to decrease its cooperation in proportionate response to Europe’s failures.
These events are occurring just as France, England, and Germany have finally launched the special financial mechanism known as INSTEX (Instrument for the Exchange of Trade). Ostensibly to bypass U.S. sanctions, INSTEX represents a small leap forward in terms of European autonomy from the the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy.
Keen on demonstrating that England remains the key U.S. ally in Middle East operations, London has now redoubled its efforts to close its policy gap with Washington on Iran, in effect torpedoing its own initiative on INSTEX. A big question is, of course, how the other European governments will react to London’s tanker move, which can easily set off a military confrontation if Iran acts on its threat to seize a British tanker in retaliation. Spain, which is in territorial dispute with UK on Gibraltar, has already lodged a complaint against London on this matter. And no other European government has openly backed London, which must now feel diplomatically isolated. Also, Russia has denounced London’s move and reminded the British government that it is obligated under the nuclear agreement to normalize oil trade with Iran and that there are no international oil sanctions on Iran.
Iran’s foreign ministry had denied that the tanker Grace 1 was bound for Syria but has not identified its final destination. The Syrian government, on the other hand, has not made any public comment, giving rise to speculation that the energy-starved Syrians will now have no choice but to become more dependent on Russia for the near future. Given the subtle competition between Moscow and Tehran for influence in Syria, this represents a potential setback for Tehran if the shipment of Iranian oil to Syria becomes impossible.
In political science, “bandwagoning” refers to a weaker power entering into alliance with a more powerful state to gain benefits. This seems to be behind London’s saber-rattling against Iran. Various UK politicians, including Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, have openly pondered the UK’s joining its U.S. ally in a war with Iran and sending additional forces to the region to deter Iran. London has parroted U.S. accusations that Iran was behind the suspicious attacks on oil tankers in Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman, even though there are plenty of reasons to cast doubt on U.S. intelligence.
The problem with the British calculations is three-fold. First, the tanker’s seizure sows division within Europe and accentuates London’s Brexit-led isolation. Second, it undercuts European diplomacy toward Iran and bolsters the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy to prevent Iran from selling its oil on the international market, which has reduced Iran’s exports to a fraction of their level before the more recent U.S. sanctions. Third, the UK’s hostile move simply energizes Iran to resist Western bullying and to use the nuclear card to retaliate. In other words, there is a direct connection between growing Western bellicosity toward Iran and the resurrection of the Iran nuclear crisis, which is clearly detrimental to Europe’s national security.
A prudent British strategy would be not to embolden Bolton and company in their Iran treachery but rather to build more and more roadblocks on the U.S. path to the next Middle East war. In a scenario where the UK and the United States once again join hands in another illegal war against a sovereign Middle East nation, British interests in the Middle East would be potentially jeopardized both directly by Iran and indirectly by the extensive network of pro-Iran solidarity organizations. Any short-term gains from the British bandwagoning strategy will be offset by the harmful effects on British foreign policy. This week, for instance, a British oil tanker on its way to Iraq made an abrupt U-turn in the Persian Gulf for fear of being seized by Iran in retaliation.
Chances are that reason will prevail. The combination of domestic and European pressure will force the British government to reconsider its ill-advised deference to U.S. bullying of Iran. If not, then the stage is set for a serious crisis in Iran-UK relations that is not in the interests of either country. Brexit-traumatized Britain will be even less able to influence global and Middle Eastern affairs if it’s a mere puppet of the Iran hawks in the White House. Instead of bandwagoning with the White House, London should be embracing the peace alternative.
Kaveh Afrasiabi has taught at Tehran University and Boston University and is a former consultant to the UN Program on Dialogue Among Civilizations. He is the author of several books on Iran, Islam, and the Middle East, including After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Books, 1995) and most recently Iran Nuclear Accord and the Remaking of the Middle East (2018). He is the co-author of the forthcoming Trump and Iran: Containment to Confrontation.