Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 8 December 2019

Britain’s proposal for European naval force in Gulf a tough sell

Distrust sowed by Brexit and the EU's aversion to challenging Tehran hamper London’s effort

Boris Johnson will inherit a maritime crisis with Iran that prompted Britain to seek the formation of European force to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. AFP
Boris Johnson will inherit a maritime crisis with Iran that prompted Britain to seek the formation of European force to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. AFP

Britain faces the daunting task of assembling a proposed European naval force to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz as an ardent Brexiteer assumes power and divergences with London's Western allies grow over how to best respond to Iranian threats.

As part of its Brexit preparations, Britain handed to Spain in March command of the Atalanta, a European anti-piracy operation off the coast of Somalia.

Now Britain wants to tailor another continental coalition against a potentially far more lethal foe. Its new prime minister is Boris Johnson, who won his Conservative Party’s leadership election to succeed Theresa May and whose arguments against the EU have been strongly disputed on the continent.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced on Monday that the UK is seeking to set up a European maritime formation to escort tankers in the Strait of Hormuz in response to Iran seizing the Stena Impero, a British-flagged tanker last week.

Mr Hunt said the capture of the Stena Impero as it sailed through the strait was “state piracy”.

The action followed Britain’s seizing of the Grace 1 off Gibraltar earlier this month. Britain said the Iranian tanker was supplying crude oil to the Syrian government in contravention of EU sanctions.

It was the first time a European country had seriously challenged Iranian support for President Bashar Al Assad. Tehran’s support for Damascus has been critical for shoring up the regime, which has killed hundreds of thousands of its citizens during the eight-year civil war.

But the EU did not back Britain in its seizure of the Grace 1, ignoring sanctions the EU itself had imposed, instead emphasising the need for de-escalation with Tehran and saving the nuclear deal. The EU has so far played down Iranian breaches of the 2015 deal.

A member of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps onboard the 'Stena Impero', a British-flagged tanker that Iran captured last week in the Strait of Hormuz. AFP
A member of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps onboard the 'Stena Impero', a British-flagged tanker that Iran captured last week in the Strait of Hormuz. AFP

Mr Hunt said he will be contacting EU states later this week about the British proposal, a task made more difficult by the likelihood that the coalition the UK is proposing would not be part of a parallel international force sought by Washington.

The US has strategic Gulf supply bases another friendly fleet would likely need if it goes there. On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Britain would have to fend for itself in the crisis, in a verbal departure from a supposedly watertight “special relationship” between the two countries.

A source close to decision-making circles in a European capital said most heavyweight states in the EU are opposed to joining a Washington-led initiative, “especially with an unpredictable US president in an inflammatory context with the Iranians”.

Even if European operational independence is preserved, there appears to be uneven willingness on the continent to join the British-proposed force.

European sources say Germany, which has focused on pursuing business opportunities with Iran with vigour, is most unlikely to join in action that could offend Tehran.

Gerard Araud, a well-connected former French diplomat tweeted that France had “agreed on the UK proposal of the creation of a European naval force in the Gulf and will assign military means to it”.

France had stressed the need for Iran to respect the right of maritime traffic and expressed “solidarity” with London.

But Mr Araud’s statement implied that Britain may need to set up the coalition first before France could back it in any significant way.

Updated: July 26, 2019 02:13 AM

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