Back when he was Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson gave speeches about how a post-Brexit “global Britain” – freed of the European Union – would be able to stand on its own two feet and broadcast its values around the world. Britain was a “protagonist,” he said, one that people around the world looked to for leadership.
On Wednesday, Mr. Johnson takes over as prime minister of a United Kingdom that’s embroiled in a crisis – with the 23 crew members of a British-flagged oil tanker held captive in Iran – that will be an early test of his idea of a global Britain and whether this country really can stand alone in a dispute far beyond its borders.
More likely, Mr. Johnson will be forced to choose between staying close to Britain’s European allies – who are trying to tamp down tensions in the Persian Gulf – and the Trump administration, which some see as trying to draw the U.K. into the United States’ own escalating confrontation with Iran.
Mr. Johnson was not in government on July 4 when Britain initiated tit-for-tat tanker seizures by dispatching Royal Marines to take control of the Grace 1, a Panamanian-flagged tanker, as it carried Iranian oil through the waters of Gibraltar, a British territory.
But the incoming PM has nonetheless received indirect blame for the fallout, which has included Iran’s seizure of the MV Stena Impero. The tanker was boarded by Iranian Revolutionary Guard commandos as it was transiting international waters in the Persian Gulf on July 19.
Officials in the U.K.’s Foreign Office and Defence Ministry have complained to British media that their government was distracted by the Conservative leadership race – a six-week process that culminated Tuesday in a vote that saw Mr. Johnson triumph over his successor as Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt – leaving the country unprepared to deal with the predictable consequences of seizing the Grace 1. (Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, vowed several days before the boarding of the Stena Impero that his country would “not leave these wicked acts without answer.”)
The British government says the Grace 1 was seized because it was carrying oil to Syria, in violation of EU sanctions, and that the decision to intercept the ship was a sovereign one. The Iranian government, however, has claimed the U.K. acted at the behest of the White House, an assertion backed by Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell.
Either way, it’s clear the use of Royal Marines against the Grace 1 suited the Trump administration’s agenda well. “Excellent news,” White House national security adviser John Bolton tweeted in response. “America & our allies will continue to prevent regimes in Tehran & Damascus from profiting off this illicit trade.”
The seizure appeared to be part of Britain’s effort to find its own path in an escalating crisis that has its roots in U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last year to pull his country out of an international deal aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program. Under Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, Britain continued to support the nuclear deal – alongside fellow signatories Germany, France, Russia, China and the EU – while occasionally backing the White House in its efforts to increase pressure on the regime in Tehran.
But Mr. Trump – who had a fractured relationship with Ms. May – and his administration have done little to assist the U.K. in the crisis that has followed. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this week that it was up to the U.K. to protect its own ships in the Persian Gulf.
Video and audio of the seizure of the Stena Impero, separately released by Iranian state TV and a British security consultancy, showed Britain struggling to do that, with a single warship, the frigate HMS Montrose, racing too late to the rescue.
Iranian commandos can be seen in the video descending from helicopters onto the deck of the tanker, while the audio recording captures HMS Montrose – too far away to intervene – sternly advising the Iranians not to “impair, impede, obstruct or hamper the passage of the MV Stena Impero.” The warnings were ignored as the Iranians took control of the ship and steered it into the port of Bandar Abbas, where the Union Jack was pulled down from the mast and the Iranian flag raised in its place.
The episode could be seen as a metaphor for the reality of “global Britain” in 2019: a single warship, far from home, barking orders that both the Iranian commandos and the crew of the Stena Impero – a mix of Russian, Indian, Latvian and Filipino nationals who evidently didn’t believe the Royal Navy was coming to rescue them – found easy to ignore.
Iran signalled Tuesday that it was interested in a diplomatic resolution to the showdown. “It is very important for Boris Johnson as he enters 10 Downing Street to understand that Iran does not seek confrontation, that Iran wants normal relations based on mutual respect,” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said.
But Mr. Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal – which Mr. Zarif was a key architect of – and to reimpose economic sanctions is seen as having marginalized reformist politicians such as Mr. Zarif. Tehran’s foreign policy is now perceived to be in the hands of regime hardliners who believe confrontation with the U.S. is inevitable.
In the wake of the Stena Impero incident, Ms. May’s government reached out to European countries, including Germany and France, in hopes of creating an impromptu coalition capable of protecting their countries’ shipping in the increasingly choppy waters of the Persian Gulf.
Mr. Johnson, having boasted repeatedly of his country’s ability to stand apart from Europe (he was the de facto leader of the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum on EU membership), may find that a politically difficult road to follow. His only other option may be to abandon the middle course Ms. May tried to chart and fall in more fully with the U.S. as it moves to confront Iran.
Both options require Mr. Johnson shucking off the “global Britain” cape and acknowledging that the country he leads is today less of a protagonist than a supporting character – no more capable of acting alone than HMS Montrose was.
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