Power in the Persian Gulf

Amid mounting hostility in the Strait of Hormuz, Maxwell Downman considers its effects on the UK’s and wider states’ strategies vis-à-vis the Iran Deal

Security in the Middle East is increasingly precarious as the Iran Deal is on thin ice and tensions have escalated in the Strait of Hormuz. With a new Prime Minister in Downing Street, the UK is treading a delicate state balance as it tries to uphold the Iran Deal and, at the same time, assemble a maritime coalition to protect tankers in the Strait of Hormuz.

President Trump’s decertification of the Iran Deal, a masterpiece of diplomatic pragmatism, set off a chain of events in a slow-motion crisis that has recently gained pace. The resumption of US sanctions bit Iran hard, and the country has been urging European partners to defy US pressure and continue business dealings with Iran.

But, following disappointment with European efforts to support the Deal, Iran has breached the 300 kg limit on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and begun a series of grandstanding measures in the region.

Recent months have resembled a cross between a game of chess, poker and Jenga as multiple states vie for power and attempts to uphold the Iran Deal have become increasingly meshed with regional security concerns.
Following the shooting down of a US drone in June, the last-minute cancellation of military strikes, the escalation of ‘proxy’ wars in the region, exposure of spy rings and the ‘tit-for-tat’ seizure of Iranian and UK oil tankers, the stakes mark the latest stage in the crisis.

Few could have foreseen this position when the Iran Deal was signed in 2015. But the history of the Middle East has been directed by a failure to predict what will happen in the region. As states try to defuse the situation, the course of action the UK takes could have profound consequences.

As tensions rise, London has sought to distance itself from the Trump Administration’s escalating confrontation with Iran – this despite claims that the UK seized the Iranian tanker passing through Gibraltar’s waters on the request of the United States. Nevertheless, outgoing UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt claimed in Parliament that Britain ‘will not be part of the US maximum pressure policy on Iran’, and called for a multilateral European-led naval coalition to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.

There are several reasons for the UK to stick with Europe on the Iran Deal

Such a maritime initiative seems desirable, as there is concern amongst Europeans that a US-led initiative would further increase tensions with Iran, pull Europeans into Washington’s maximum pressure campaign and, in extremis, lead to conflict with Iran.

Both the United States and the United Kingdom have tried to downplay the rift. The Foreign Office said any distinct European-led maritime initiative would not exclude America, but work in cooperation with US naval forces. And the United States has said the two maritime initiatives would be ‘complementary’.
So, could a European-led maritime initiative be successful in protecting traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, and what would be its effect on attempts to uphold the Iran Deal?

First, there is the question of whether Europe has the capacity and the political will. The incident has already caused deep embarrassment for the British government. The Royal Navy does not have enough ships to do the job, its fleet of frigates and destroyers having shrunk to fewer than 20 vessels. Indeed, the HMS Montrose was unable to prevent the seizure of the Stena Impero by Iran.

If Europe could scrape together enough ships, there is some cause for optimism, given the precedent of success on European-led initiatives. Lessons can be learned from Operation Atlanta, a multilateral counter-piracy operation organised by the EU in the Indian Ocean. At the peak of pirate attacks in 2011, 32 ships and 736 hostages were held by pirates. Five years later, that number stood at zero and has remained that way.
However, anti-piracy operations are far different from an operation aimed at a state. Iran could perceive any manoeuvre as a further stoking of tensions, and a signal of yet more weakening in the commitment to the Iran Deal.

There are also concerns about the utility of such an initiative. European capitals may ask whether there is any real danger to international shipping, or if this is simply a power-play between the UK and Iran, and a crisis of their own making. Within the UK, many analysts and former British diplomats have questioned the ‘tit-for-tat’ seizing of tankers will inevitably push Britain closer to the US maximum pressure policy.

So, what next for Britain now that it has a new Prime Minister? At the time of writing, Boris Johnson appears willing to continue Britain’s support for the Iran Nuclear Deal but sees no need for America to be excluded from plans for maritime security patrols through the Gulf. Now that both Jeremy Hunt (former Foreign Secretary) and Penny Mordaunt (former Defence Secretary) have left the government, the initiative may be on thin ice and many predict that Boris Johnson will be willing to bring the UK closer to the US strategy of maximum pressure and distance itself from Europe.

Yet there are a number of reasons for the UK to stick with Europe on the Iran Deal and continue to abstain from the US-led initiative. First, the European-led initiative is less likely to stoke tension with Iran. Second, it offers the UK a stronger case for leadership. Third, there is little to be gained from the maximum pressure campaign. Sanctions are not an end in themselves.

What is needed more than anything else is the resumption of diplomacy with Iran. One way of bringing this about is for the UK and Europeans to press for the temporary restoration of sanctions waivers. This could be a meaningful gesture that would encourage the re-opening of negotiations with Iran. It would also provide a pressure valve for tensions in the Strait of Hormuz, removing the key justification for Iran’s power-play there, and creating a joint stake in securing maritime traffic in the region.

The UK walks a delicate tightrope between the United States, Europe and Iran in navigating this crisis. It is important to ensure that any efforts to protect maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz also de-escalate rather than escalate the crisis, and provide pathways for upholding the Iran Deal.


Maxwell Downman is a political researcher with the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), London’s independent disarmament and arms control think-tank. He focuses on nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and East Asian international security

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