Can Boris Johnson part ways with the US on Iran?
As winner of the Conservative Party leadership contest in Britain, Boris Johnson is already partitioning public opinion over matters, including Brexit and the Iranian tanker seizure conflict that some say Johnson can lay to rest.
The fallout between Britain and Iran blew up in early July after the Iranian tanker Grace I was impounded by British Royal Marines, prompting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to detain the British-flagged Stena Impero two weeks later. The vessel and its 23 sailors remain in Iranian custody.
Initial predictions of a “tanker-for-tanker” exchange uttered by former British politician Stanley Johnson — Boris Johnson’s father — were discounted by members of the freshly formed British cabinet.
The potential swap fell from Britain’s options after newly appointed Minister of Defence Dominic Raab delivered a stern warning informing Tehran that there would be “no quid pro quo.” As Britain pivots away from a foreign policy that placates Iran, it turns its sights towards international law to inform its interactions with an increasingly restive ally.
“This is about the international law and the rules of the international legal system being upheld and that is what we will insist on,” Raab said during an interview with the BBC.
Iran’s leadership under President Hassan Rohani has displayed unwavering criticism with the former administration led by Theresa May for engaging in what Iran likened to “piracy,” referring to the seizure of Grace I, suspected of carrying oil to Syria. Iran insinuated that the move was green-lit “at the behest” of the United States, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter.
Following Johnson’s installation as prime minister, Iran’s remarks unveil a relatively relaxed approach — contrary to predictions that Iran would openly exploit the political transitory phase shaking up domestic British politics.
Rohani addressed Johnson warmly, citing his “familiarity” and previous and “only one visit to Tehran” in 2017 as good signs of what the future could hold. Rohani expressed optimism that Johnson’s tenure may help remove “existing obstacles on the path of development of relations between the two countries.”
Rohani’s rhetoric represents a stride towards de-escalation at a time when Iran’s options are few and far between.
Similarly, Zarif, deemed “soft” by the hardliners in his approach to the West, signalled early on that Iran does not seek confrontation. Days before Johnson secured his leadership title, Iran’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Hamid Baeidinejad, defended his county’s actions regarding the nuclear accord. “We have not stepped up confrontation,” Baeidinejad told journalist Christiane Amanpour last month.
Like Zarif, Baeidinejad welcomed the Conservative Party’s choice for prime minister. Throughout his television appearances, the ambassador toed the regime line of “illegal seizure,” arguing that Iran acted “lawfully” and that “no international regulation has been violated by” Iranian tanker Grace I seized July 4 near Gibraltar.
A revealing distinction made by Baeidinejad in a tweet offers a glimmer of hope for Johnson and the Iranians. In calling on the government to “contain those domestic political forces who want to escalate existing tension [sic] between Iran and the UK… beyond the issue of ships,” Baeidinejad, although indirectly, signalled a readiness to build bridges with the new government.
Iran is aware of Britain’s vulnerabilities and is trying to demonstrate by the seizure of Stena Impero that further cosying up to the United States will cost Britain.
Before threats to the freedom of navigation blew up, Secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council Mohsen Rezaee, a former IRGC commander, wrote on Twitter that “If Britain does not release the Iranian oil tanker, it is the authorities’ duty to seize a British oil tanker.”
Rezaee’s words de-emphasise the prospect of war, while promoting the notion of “self-defence.” Only a thin line separates the two but Iran knows how to re-engineer the true timeline of events and the accompanying narrative into a neat “good guys” versus “bad guys.”
Despite its malign activities in the Middle East, raising and exporting militias and divisive ideologies antithetical to central rule, Iran has increasingly labelled the United States as a sponsor of terrorism.
The United States has proscribed various IRGC elements as terrorists and regards the Iranian regime to be rogue. European countries, increasingly aware of heightened tensions, will not back an exclusively US-led monitoring mission to maintain the peace in the Gulf.
Remarks by Raab suggest that Iran cannot provoke Britain into military action, at least not yet. What displeases Iran most is watching Britain align itself more closely to the United States, with which a standoff is brewing.
The bigger predicament for Johnson, known for his anti-EU proclivities, is whether he can hatch a plan, independent from the United States that European partners can endorse as a united front.
In a recent interview on BBC’s “HARDtalk,” Zarif scolded Britain for siding with the United States.
“The United Kingdom, by confiscating our ship, is helping the United States to impose its illegal oil sanctions against Iran… That is why [US national security adviser] John Bolton thanked Great Britain for giving them the best fourth of July present possible,” Zarif said.
As all parties wrestle to preserve their interests, Iran signalled an important reminder to European partners and Britain — that protection of the Arabian Gulf is a task that rests squarely with Zarif’s government.
As the health of its economy deteriorates, Iran has been showing growing frustration with Britain’s embrace of the United States and the adoption of a policy line that endorses instead of undermines the US position.