A new Gulf crisis?

The Strait of Hormuz is a critical economic passage since it carries around a third of total global seaborne traded oil. It is no surprise then, that provocations and confrontations which take place there carry a great degree of urgency and danger.

In May and June, there were a series of skirmishes between the US and Iran with the latter allegedly attacking two US oil tankers and shooting down a US drone which had entered its airspace. The US responded in July by shooting down an Iranian drone. The two sides have exchanged threats, denied wrongdoing and accused the other of violating international law.

The standoff between the UK and Iran began in early July when the Iranian tanker, Grace 1, was seized by the Royal Marines near Gibraltar. It was suspected of breaking EU sanctions by supplying oil to Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Jeremy Hunt, the UK Foreign Secretary at the time, offered to release the tanker in exchange for assurances that the oil would not be used for this purpose. However Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the move “piracy” and vowed that “the Islamic Republic and its committed forces will not leave this evilness without a response”. In retaliation Iran seized a British flagged oil tanker, the Stena Impero.

The risk of Britain entering an armed conflict with Iran is extremely slim

These events likely originate from President Trump’s withdrawal of America from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, commonly known as the Iran Deal) last year. This has led to the reintroduction of sanctions, which have crippled the Iran’s economy for years, heightening tensions between the two sides. President Trump has asserted that the original deal was too permissive of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and would lead to them eventually obtaining nuclear weapons which they could use to threaten the US and its allies, particularly Israel. On the other hand, Iran points to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s fifteen reports that the country has complied with the terms and conditions of the deal. Now, following Trump’s comments they feel betrayed and mistrustful of further negotiations. 

The risk of Britain entering an armed conflict with Iran is extremely slim. During the Conservative leadership campaign both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt ruled out cooperation with the US should it decide to initiate open conflict. A war with Iran would be expensive and domestically unpopular for both sides, making frosty diplomacy the most likely outcome. Iran has already granted consular access to the crew members of the Stena Impero and released nine crew members of the MT Riah, a Panaman tanker it had also captured.

Britain could play a key role in ensuring Iran’s transparency requirements

Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China have been attempting to salvage the JCPOA since the USA’s exit. Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, described the seizure of Grace 1 as a violation of the nuclear deal as it impeded Iran’s ability to export its oil supply. If Iran views European efforts to negotiate the deal to be in bad faith or noncommittal, the likelihood of the negotiations failing may increase.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas distanced his country from Britain and the United States’ actions, warning that he would not subscribe to an aggressive approach to the issue. This suggests that the other remaining signatories to the deal are anxious to thaw tensions so as to not endanger its survival. However, if Britain is removed from the equation either by Iranian insistence or European expediency the eventual stringency of the deal could be in doubt. As a close ally of the US, Britain could play a key role in ensuring that Iran’s transparency requirements and enrichment limits are tightly enforced. It would therefore be optimal if current tensions over the oil tankers could be resolved in time for Britain to have an influential seat at the table.

Image: AlfvanBeem via Wikimedia Commons

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