Iran has won a point over the UK.
Seizing a British oil tanker in the gulf has been always a red line. The Iranians have pushed the UK’s back against the wall, as they said they would do. Their message was loud and clear. But British ministers and diplomats underestimated the Iranian threat.
The confrontation started with the confiscation of the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 in Gibraltar, on behest of the US. Trump’s pressure on the government was meant to drive a wedge between the UK and its European allies, who are keen on maintaining the status quo and the 2015 nuclear deal, signed by Iran and other major powers.
The EU signatories want Iran to avoid two crucial events: Iran breaking off from the nuclear accord (also known as the JCPOA), and igniting a war with the US.
As for the Iranians, their trigger-happy attitude in the gulf aims to nudge the Europeans out of their comfort zone. They want EU states to pressure the Trump administration to scale back some of the economic sanctions, especially on Iran’s oil sales, since Trump pulled out of the JCPOA and re-imposed them on Iran.
The Iranian regime also doesn’t want any of the three EU signatories (the UK, France and Germany) to pull out of the deal. The EU partners are vital for Iran because they provide it with a moral, political and diplomatic cover against aggression from the US. They also help to thwart the repeated and relentless attempts by Russia and China (the non-European signatories) to isolate Iran from Europe, and increase its dependence on them. And the EU partners stand in the way of Trump’s international coalition, whose outcome could well be an exact reflection of the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003.
By seizing tanker Stena Impero, Iran has placed all its strategic and intertwined interests with the EU on the line – in a bid to pressure Trump.
But pressuring Trump is a very complex and extravagant business. Trump must have rejoiced when he received the news about the Revolutionary Guard Corps seizing a British tanker. The American President want the Europeans to join his anti-Iran coalition.
The Iranians understand the UK’s strategic weaknesses and political vulnerabilities, and they play them well against the UK’s increasingly out of touch political establishment, which is utterly burned out by Brexit.
The timing of seizing the tanker has been carefully chosen. Amid the changing of the political guard, Iran understands that the UK is realistically unable to build up a consensus as to how it should push back against Iran’s bullying its maritime merchant fleet at the Strait of Hormuz.
This will be the first order of business for future PM Boris Johnson, whose diplomatic skills will be instantly put to the test. He might clumsily rush to follow the example of the Falklands War, when Margaret Thatcher’s esteem was very low, and she, through determination and ruthlessness, managed to rise out of the war’s ashes as an exceptional leader.
But Johnson is not Thatcher, and this time the US is no longer there.
If he becomes our next prime minister on Tuesday, Boris will likely propel the UK to fall in line with the US strategy on Iran. This is where trust with Iran will face an absolute annihilation.
Seizing the Iranian tanker Grace 1 was just the beginning. In 1812, the UK abducted merchant ships in open waters, thrusting itself into a bloody war with the US. Now the US is pressuring the UK to capture oil tankers, and we will likely pay heavily for it.
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