Johnson’s Britain is a reluctant warrior in showdown with Iran

Obviously, Britain would have preferred to be a spectator rather than an actor in the confrontation but there it is now.
Saturday 27/07/2019
A speedboat of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard moves around a British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz. (AFP)
Hostile moves. A speedboat of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard moves around a British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz. (AFP)

The US-Iranian confrontation has touched Britain, even though the latter would rather stay out of it because this confrontation is going to last for as long as the United States is determined to bring Iran to heel through economic strangulation and Tehran does not seem to see any other option besides escalation.

The difference between America and Britain is that the United States can afford to play the waiting game with Iran and can expand and develop its war on Iran.

By seizing a British oil tanker in international waters in the Persian Gulf, Iran demonstrated its readiness to go far in defying the international community. Britain cannot do anything to Iran without the United States by its side.

Iran is looking for a military confrontation so it can negotiate with the Americans from a position of strength. Above all, Tehran is taking advantage of the fact that US President Donald Trump is interested only in preparing for next year’s presidential elections.

The seizure of the British oil tanker has revealed the limited power of the former British Empire “on which the sun never sets.” The United Kingdom is no longer what it used to be. It is just a normal country, with no real leadership and, even with Boris Johnson as prime minister, it will continue to be in a state of utter confusion.

What a farce it was to see as British prime minister a former staunch supporter of Brexit only for him to discover that his country’s exit from the European Union is just one further step on the path of marginalising the role of the United Kingdom worldwide.

Iran, on the other hand, flexes its muscles in the Gulf by detaining a British oil tanker. It was its response to US and European sanctions that targeted not only Iran but also Syria. After all, the oil tanker seized in Gibraltar, a British dominion, was carrying Iranian oil to Syria.

Britain is clearly confused. It failed the test of responding to the Iranian provocation and all it can do is rely on the United States in general and on Trump’s administration specifically.

The problem is that the least we can say about the Trump administration is that it is reluctant to launch a military strike against Iran, preferring to work on two fronts: increasing sanctions on Iran and its proxies and forming an international coalition to take charge of responding to Iran.

It seems that the United States does not want to engage in a military clash with Iran without the framework of an international alliance like the one formed following Saddam Hussein’s insane adventure in Kuwait in the summer of 1990. The United States waited several months to form the alliance that freed Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in February 1991.

Britain found itself entangled in a squabble that it had nothing to do with. Britain refused to follow the new US policy pursued by the Trump administration that began with tearing up the nuclear agreement with Iran.

Still, Britain could not refrain from holding the Iranian oil tanker as it was crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. At the same time, it finds itself unable to respond to the Iranian provocation in the Gulf.

This means the US-Iranian confrontation has, like it or not, involved Britain, even though the latter would rather stay out of it. It looks like this confrontation is going to last for as long as the United States is determined to bring Iran to heel through economic strangulation.

Iran does not seem to see any other option besides escalation for the simple reason that it does not have a leadership capable of accepting that there is no shame in admitting defeat.

A defeat would not be one when it is taken as an opportunity for self-appraisal and the adoption of a new policy based on paying attention to the Iranian interior and to the well-being of Iranian citizens instead of persisting in escaping reality through adventurism abroad.

Unfortunately for Britain, it is caught in a confrontation it has not started. The question is not what London is going to do as much as what Washington is willing to do. The Trump administration favours an economic war, a war of sanctions against Iran and its proxies, the sectarian militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

More than that, Washington seems set on pursuing Iranian proxies and agents everywhere, including Central and South America. Argentina recently announced that it considered Lebanese Hezbollah as a “terrorist organisation.” Such a position should not be underestimated. It heralds the opening of old files against Iran, such as the bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires in 1994 and the prosecution of those responsible for the operation.

There is an indirect confrontation between the United States and Iran in Iraq. From time to time, that confrontation takes on a military character, one that signals the hand of Israel in the shadows.

Iran has opted for military escalation. To what extent can the United States tolerate this escalation and continue the waiting game? That is the burning question for the next phase, a question whose answer depends largely on Trump’s election agenda.

The Trump administration has been playing the waiting game. It did not respond directly or in deeds to Iran’s downing of the most sophisticated US spy planes, a drone that cost more than $160 million.

Iran’s insistence on escalating tension will have serious consequences at some stage unless it turns out that the Trump administration is a paper tiger. This seems unlikely, however, given that this administration has not only increased and expanded the sanctions against Iran, it has sent more troops to the region. About 500 soldiers have been dispatched to Saudi Arabia, added to those in Iraq and in Syria.

Obviously, Britain would have preferred to be a spectator in the confrontation but there it is now. Poor Britain is not to be envied for its acute internal political crisis brought about by its sinful Brexit referendum. It can’t afford to exit the European Union just as it is incapable of countering Iranian reactions.

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