Britain needs to stop flip-flopping on Iran

It is time for Britain to lockstep with the United States and coordinate its Iran policy accordingly.
Saturday 31/08/2019
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures at a press conference at the G7 summit, Biarritz, southwestern France, August 26. (AP)
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures at a press conference at the G7 summit, Biarritz, southwestern France, August 26. (AP)

Despite a request from the US government for the Iranian oil tanker Grace I not to be released from Britain-controlled Gibraltar, the tanker was cut loose and set sail for Greece, raising questions about Britain’s commitment to its American ally.

While the episode of the seizure of the Iranian vessel has been embarrassing for the mullahs of Tehran, the United Kingdom’s seeming flip-flopping around the Iranian menace is alarming, particularly as British-Iranian citizens languish in Iranian dungeons and no effort was made by Whitehall to use the capture of Grace I, since renamed the Adrian Darya I, as leverage to secure their release.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian charity worker, was arrested alongside her 22-month-old daughter by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in April 2016. Months later, she was sentenced in a sham trial to five years in Iran’s prisons, which are notorious for all manner of human rights abuses, torture and psychological torment.

She was found guilty of “plotting to topple the Iranian government,” a charge that would be hilariously laughable were it not for the grave miscarriage of justice that would be inflicted on this woman and, by extension, her family.

As foreign secretary, Boris Johnson in 2017 made matters worse for Zaghari-Ratcliffe by publicly stating that she was in Iran “teaching journalism.” She actually was in the country visiting her family for Nowruz, the Persian new year. Johnson’s shambolic intervention led to her being dragged before another revolutionary court, though she escaped further punishment.

Now, as prime minister, Johnson had some serious leverage over Iran in the form of its oil tanker being seized by Royal Marines, who had reason to believe its cargo was about to be illegally shipped to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Johnson also had the opportunity to use the seizure of the tanker to coordinate with the White House to enhance and increase pressure on Iran to ensure that it behaved according to international norms and standards. Unfortunately, Johnson failed to capitalise on this leverage or even to emphasise the fact that Iran needed Britain if it wanted to keep the dead-in-the-water Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal, alive.

What this means is that, most important, Zaghari-Ratcliffe will, unfortunately, continue to languish in an IRGC-run dungeon and that Johnson has failed her twice, first as foreign secretary and second as the most powerful man in the United Kingdom. It also means he has irked his closest ally, the administration of US President Donald Trump, and seemingly so that he could continue to toe the line set out by the European Union. It is seeking to keep the nuclear deal with Iran on life support even after it is obviously not fit for purpose.

Britain needs to make up its mind. It cannot seek freedom of navigation for all commercial vessels in the Arabian Gulf that Iran threatens every day and want to keep the nuclear deal alive while Iran breaches its terms and enriches uranium beyond levels stipulated by the agreement. Downing Street’s flip-flopping on the Iranian issue is a drain on Britain’s prestige and shows that the United Kingdom can be bullied.

Let us not forget that Iran describes Britain as the “Little Satan,” as compared to the United States’ status as the “Great Satan.” That the United Kingdom should continue to tolerate threats to its interests, its citizens, its ships and its prestige all for the sake of keeping the European Union happy even with Brexit on the horizon is silly.

It is time for Britain to lockstep with the United States and coordinate its Iran policy accordingly.

This much was made abundantly clear at the G7 summit when French President Emmanuel Macron invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to attend on the sidelines of the meeting, likely in an attempt to embarrass Trump.

Nevertheless, and despite talks of new discussions on the Iran nuclear deal coming from the Americans that were later rebuffed by Iranian President Hassan Rohani, Johnson maintained his country’s position that the Iran nuclear deal was the best option for global powers to curtail Iranian expansionism while keeping Tehran economically engaged.

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