Boris Johnson has a golden opportunity to change course with Iran
Years of a benign attitude have got Britain nowhere. It's time to take a tougher stance
Just over a fortnight ago, Iran had no qualms about seizing the Stena Impero while the British-flagged vessel was passing through the Strait of Hormuz. This was a direct result of Britain’s overly friendly overtures towards Iran being interpreted as weakness. But now that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has taken residence at 10 Downing Street, the UK now has an opportunity to change course with Iran.
London was an enthusiastic signatory of the 2015 nuclear deal. Just one month after the flawed deal was signed, the UK reopened its embassy in Tehran. This was quick, considering that a little over three years earlier, the embassy was shut after it was invaded and ransacked by an angry mob. Iranian security officers looked the other way while the Vienna Convention was violated.
For Britain, to have reinstigated representation was a major step. However, it was greeted with disdain. Just a couple of months later, Britain’s intelligence services discovered three tons of explosives in a London home, part of a plot by Tehran-backed Hezbollah to blow up Israeli interests on British shores. Still, London kept schtum about the outrage and even covered it up.
Then, Iran arrested British-Iranian citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe under preposterous espionage charges. Mr Johnson, who was then foreign secretary, incorrectly remembered his brief and commented that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran teaching journalists, when she was actually visiting family. The discrepancy was pounced upon by Iranian officials to keep Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe in custody.
The continued detention of a British hostage is outrageous. Locked away from her family and young daughter, Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been held in Evin prison, a modern-day dungeon of despair where inmates are mentally tortured and worse. In his new prime ministerial role, Mr Johnson needs to make amends for his earlier faux pas and not continue to tolerate this disgraceful act of hostage diplomacy.
Yet even after Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe was taken captive, British lenience to Tehran persisted. For example, after US President Donald Trump walked away from the nuclear deal last year, Britain sided with Iran and European powers by reaffirming its commitment to the defective agreement. Again, Tehran’s response was contempt. Instead of working with the UK and Europe to save the deal, Iran increased its nuclear output.
The Stena Impero affair is just the latest example of Iran’s hostility in the face of British benevolence. Tehran claims that it was acting in response to the capture of an Iranian ship by Royal Marines off Gibraltar. However, after Britain impounded the Iranian vessel, Westminster sent word that it would be released if Tehran gave assurances that it would not sail to Syria to illegally sell oil to the Assad regime.
Mr Johnson, together with the new combative foreign secretary Dominic Raab, need to be firm, steadfast and robust towards Tehran.
So far, Mr Raab’s insistence that there will be no barter between the Iranian and British vessel is a good sign. London needs to maintain its position that this is not a case of reciprocity. Iran’s ship was breaching EU sanctions, Britain’s vessel was engaged in lawful activities. Westminster is also right to consider freezing Iranian assets and should do so if the situation is not resolved within the next week. Then Downing St should slap sanctions on key Iranian officials, just as the US did with Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Meanwhile, Westminster made an important gesture by offering a Royal Navy escort through the Strait of Hormuz to every British-flagged vessel, either individually or in groups, albeit with the caveat that “sufficient” notice should be given. However, Britain still needs international support.
While statements expressing solidarity from France and Germany were heartening, placing all hopes in European efforts to protect shipping in the Gulf are misplaced. Already, European officials are dragging their feet and it might take months before such a force actually gets going. Instead, Britain should support and help promote Operation Sentinel, the US-led plan to establish a coalition of countries willing to protect ships passing through the Gulf. A half-hearted US effort to protect international shipping is better than a reluctant European initiative.
But Britain should not stop there. Westminster has to let Tehran know that there are consequences for belligerency. London should take steps to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist group, beginning with its special operations unit, the Quds Force, which is linked to a number of terrorist groups and outrages across the globe, and expanding it to the IRGC in its entirety.
Britain should also reduce the operating hours of its consular services in Tehran and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office might consider increasing its travel advisory to Iran to the most severe level to warn British nationals against trips to Iran.
Finally, Britain should also reconsider its support for the nuclear deal, especially after Iran recently stated that it will restart its plutonium enrichment in Arak.
Years of British benignity towards Iran has brought it very few tangible results. Mr Johnson should know that taking a tougher stance with Tehran is not only prudent but necessary.
Dr Simon Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King's College London
Updated: August 4, 2019 07:02 PM