Continuing his weekly series about the complexities of the Middle East, Ahmed Aboudouh examines international shipping disputes, and whether Britain will join the US naval mission in Iran
Britain has joined the US in a naval mission in the Gulf to protect international shipping following tanker seizures by the Iranian military.
Jeremy Hunt, the former foreign secretary, called for a European-led naval mission. Now Britain has joined what it said was a US-led “international maritime security mission”.
“It is vital to secure the freedom for all international shipping to navigate the Strait of Hormuz without delay, given the increased threat,” said the defence secretary Ben Wallace.
Dominic Raab, the new foreign secretary, stressed that the government has not changed its policy to Iran.
1 Is Britain still committed to the same policy?
No. Boris Johnson has shifted the UK’s stance on Iran away from that of Europe and closer to the Trump administration.
The government is still committed to maintaining Iran’s nuclear deal and de-escalating the situation, according to ministers. But Iran views Britain’s actions with a lot of suspicion.
Raab, who seems to play a vital role in securing US backing for Brexit, turned his back on his predecessor’s pledge for a European-led taskforce to protect merchant shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.
The US has enough naval capabilities as part of its fifth fleet based in Bahrain. Britain’s royal navy includes the frigate HMS Montrose and destroyer HMS Duncan.
Many analysts say Britain’s purpose in the US-led initiative is to secure some kind of legitimacy for Trump’s military pressure on Iran.
Iran doesn’t like to be cast as a rogue state; its leaders want to be seen as the sole guarantors of security and stability in the Gulf. They seem ready to put the two most strategic assets Iran hold – the nuclear deal and Strait of Hormuz – on the line to thwart the US-led mission.
Iran aims to link the stepping-up of western military activities in the Gulf to the very existence of the nuclear deal. By threatening to pull out of it, Tehran is trying to force the EU states to keep their distance from Trump’s policy.
2 Will other countries join the US mission?
This is yet unclear. Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, said the US has now asked more than 60 countries to join the coalition. Only Israel has expressed willingness; some western states, including France and Germany, are unwilling; and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman, who are the Americans’ closest allies in the region – are yet to commit. Which makes a coalition of just three.
3 What do the Iranians want?
They want to assert themselves as the masters of the Gulf waters, and to pressure the US to scale back some of the economic sanctions, especially on the oil sales, since Trump pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and reimposed them on Iran.
Many Iranian officials think the EU signatories to the deal are the only partners capable of keeping the Iranian economy afloat, by delivering the economic implications mentioned in the deal.
Iran regards the beefing-up of western military assets on its doorstep as a major strategic threat, and supports the EU’s dull approach towards Trump’s military stints.
Europe doesn’t trust Trump’s intentions, questions the real military objective behind the mission and fears military miscalculations that would result in a major conflict. It still insists that Trump’s initiative goes beyond protecting navigation in the strait.
Australia became the latest ally to give the plan a wide berth. Ministers there told American counterparts that the request would be given “very serious consideration”, but stopped short of offering a full response.
The diplomatic upheaval facing Trump’s administration in its bid to corral its allies reflects its isolation on the world stage, the very strategy Iran is betting on. The US seems ready to do everything possible to end this supposed isolation.
Boris Johnson might be expected to use his affinity with Trump to calm the crisis; instead, he is fuelling it. Johnson regards Trump as the “lifeboat” for Brexit; Iran views Europe as the “oxygen” to save its sinking economy. The real question in this race: who will arrive to the shore first?