Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 August 2019

Britain’s hopes for a Europe-led naval task force ‘improbable’

UK’s foreign secretary announced the patrol in response to escalating tensions with Iran over its seizure of a British-flagged tanker last week

Iranian Revolutionary Guards in speedboats patrol around the tanker Stena Impero as it's anchored off the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas. AFP
Iranian Revolutionary Guards in speedboats patrol around the tanker Stena Impero as it's anchored off the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas. AFP

Plans for a new European-led marine protection force, to combat rising tensions with Iran, could be dead in the water as the new government is more open to including the US in the arrangement.

As Boris Johnson becomes the UK’s new prime minister on Wednesday, analysts believe he will distance himself from Europe in a bid to tighten the nation’s ties with the US.

The UK has been committed to salvaging and sustaining the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran despite the US leaving last year.

Iran claimed on Tuesday the idea of a European security coalition would “increase insecurity”.

The idea of a European maritime security coalition was put forward by the UK’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Monday in a bid to ensure safe shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.

But the proposal was made just hours before he lost the leadership contest.

However, the idea of a coalition has already received some support from EU states. After Britain approached EU nations to join the European-led naval mission for safe shipping through the Strait of Hormuz and France, Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands showed strong support, Sky News Arabia reported on Tuesday evening.

The foreign secretary has not ruled himself out of continuing to serve in the cabinet under Boris Johnson, but he may be moved to a different role by the new prime minister as he forms his government this week.

Mr Hunt's announcement came in response to escalating strains with Iran over its seizure of a British-flagged tanker last week which Mr Hunt called “state piracy”.

His rival Mr Johnson’s close relationship with President Donald Trump could now see the UK taking tougher action against Iran.

Their good relationship was in little doubt on Tuesday when Mr Trump congratulated him on his win saying he will be a “great” leader.

Dibyesh Anand, Professor of International Relations and Head of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Westminster, believes the appointment of Mr Johnson will now see the UK further distance itself from Europe.

“Boris Johnson, like Donald Trump, is rather unpredictable and yet at the same time his past conduct and words make it clear he is irresponsible as well as undiplomatic,” he said.

“On Iran, he is likely to go along with Mr Trump's approach and distance further from European partners. In order to curry favours with Mr Trump, who is dangling the carrot of a post-Brexit trade deal without going into the details, Mr Johnson is likely to erode Britain's strategic autonomy vis-a-vis US and reject schemes that reflect European cooperation.”

Uncertainty now surrounds how Mr Johnson will deal with his first international crisis.

Dr Ali Alavi, a teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said: “It is improbable that Mr Johnson’s government would follow Mr Hunt’s proposed European led marine force.

“His attempts will see him get closer to his staunch supporter, Trump, in order to mitigate the damages of his Brexit project. This may increase the risks of the UK getting dragged into Mr Trump’s economic warfare against Iran.

“On the other hand, Mr Johnson is well aware of the fact that the British public opinion is strongly against unwise adventures in the Middle East. It is yet to see how Mr Johnson would put the British national interest above his personal connections with Mr Trump. The UK, beside other European powers, can play a pivotal role in rescuing the nuclear deal and in stabilising the region. Mr Johnson will now be scrutinized by the British public on how he can pragmatically engineer the UK’s policies towards Iran and the region by deescalating the state of affairs.”

On Monday evening, Mr Hunt said there had been “constructive discussions” with a number of countries to create a European maritime coalition.

He said: “Because freedom of navigation is a vital interest of every nation, we will now seek to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to support safe passage of both crew and cargo in this vital region.

“We have had constructive discussions with a number of countries in the last 48 hours and will discuss later this week the best way to complement this with recent US proposals in this area.

“The new force will be focused on free navigation, bearing in mind that one fifth of the world’s oil, a quarter of its liquefied natural gas – and trade worth half a trillion dollars - passes through the Strait of Hormuz every year.

“It will not be part of the US maximum pressure policy on Iran because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement.”

But on Tuesday, the Iranian vice-president, Eshaq Jahangiri, said: “There is no need to form a coalition because these kinds of coalitions and the presence of foreigners in the region by itself creates insecurity. And other than increasing insecurity it will not achieve anything else.”

A senior Iranian diplomat, Abbas Araghchi, is due to meet with French president, Emmanuel Macron, for talks about the situation.

France has backed the idea of a security coalition in the Gulf.

Former French ambassador to Israel, the UN and the US, Gerard Araud tweeted: “France has agreed to the UK proposal of the creation of an European naval force in the Gulf and will assign military means to it.”

The UK has been working with its European allies to keep the nuclear agreement alive.

Last month, the US proposed its own “coalition of navies” in the Arabian Gulf but the UK’s announcement on Monday would be separate to this.

Britain has not yet signed up to the US proposal and the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, told London it was “responsible” to take care of their own ships.

As the new British Prime Minister Mr Johnson announces his new cabinet in the coming days and weeks, the situation is open to a change of heart. In his celebratory speech as leader, Mr Johnson said of Mr Hunt: "You have been a font of excellent ideas, all of which I intend to steal."

Europe will be watching to see if the protection force proposal is one of these.

Updated: July 23, 2019 11:24 PM

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