On 3rd January 2020, as the world was just recovering from the beginning of a new year, the United States launched an unprecedented attack on Iran, assassinating General Qassem Solemaini, and sparking a brief escalation of tension. Much has been said about this incident, from the legality to the moral justification.
The consequences have been much broader than simply aggression from either government, with the Iranian people themselves launching protests against Ayatollah Khamenei. Yet what has not been analysed as much is the effects of this crisis on the UK and its foreign policy.
For Boris Johnson, this is a real test following his election victory
For Boris Johnson, this is a real test following his election victory. The fact that he took so long to respond was a stumble, however the noteworthy point is the muted nature of the response. As one of the United States’ biggest allies, he could justifiably take umbrage at not being notified of the attack, but unlike France and Germany, Johnson was quieter in his response, commenting that he would not “lament” the assassination. A New York Times piece attributes this to the balancing act that the UK needs to carry out post-Brexit. Johnson campaigned hard on an increased partnership with America, and indeed, the response paints a picture of the UK fully backing the USA rather than taking the more sceptical European view. Recent developments have blurred this somewhat.
The government is trying to balance a closer relationship with the US whilst keeping itself at the heart of European political life. Only time will tell if Johnson will be able to have his cake and eat it too.
Yet the implications for the UK also extend further than diplomatic intricacies. For the last few years, the government’s dispute with Iran had implications on the struggle to free Nazanin Zaghari- Ratcliffe, who was accused of spying in 2016. Iran’s inflamed view of western power now has severe consequences for prisoners. Johnson’s political game may be serving him in the political arena for now, but it spells disaster for Nazanin, who now faces even less chance of freedom.
The UK government wanted to ‘de-escalate the tensions’
En-route to a Brussels conference on the Iranian crisis on 7th January, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab asserted that the UK government wanted to ‘de-escalate the tensions’ though acknowledging the hypothetical outcome of a ‘full-blown war’. Indeed, Britain’s ‘keep calm and carry on’ mentality seemingly remains at the forefront of international affairs, given that, realistically, the UK could not bear the possibility of a war. With the political uncertainties of Brexit posing as an obstacle for trade, it is imperative that the UK maintain bonds with potential trade partners. For this a stable economy and post-Brexit plan is desirable, as opposed to an engaged conflict with Iran.
What would be the worst possible outcome?
History has shown us that wars take their toll on all socio-economic levels. Whitehall figures in 2010 revealed that between April 2001 and March 2010, £20.34 billion was spent on the war with Iraq and Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, young people in the UK are currently protected from conscription (compulsory military service) so any fears circulating of being ‘drafted’ are at present unwarranted. But we should remember that conscription has been implemented in the past; both British men and women in World War Two were eventually conscripted. Across the Pond, US males aged between 18 to 25 years old, on the other hand, would be liable to the Selective Service System in the event of a full-blown war.
Photograph: Ministereie Van Buitenlandse Zaken via Creative Commons