Ideologues Playing Battleship

The British Navy’s seizure of an Iranian oil tanker has sparked diplomatic crisis and a tit-for-tat action by Iran. Post-Brexit Britain wants to reassert itself as a global power — but it’s suffering from a serious case of imperial overreach.

General Sir Nicholas Patrick Carter, UK Chief of Defence, arrives for an emergency COBR meeting at the Cabinet Office In Whitehall on July 22, 2019 in London, England. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

July saw mounting tensions between Britain and Iran, as first the British Navy seized an Iranian oil tanker off Gibraltar and then Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps did the same to a British vessel in the Strait of Hormuz. These moves added a new dimension to the uncertainty surrounding the ongoing diplomatic impasse between Iran, the leading European countries, and the United States. Affecting the delicate balance in the Strait of Hormuz, the standoff significantly increases the risk that miscalculations — or simple opportunism — could spill over into military confrontation.

This tension is rooted in Tehran’s recent response to a series of controversial maneuvers by Donald Trump’s administration, which culminated in threats of open warfare in the last few months. This started when Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on May 8, 2018, and then imposed a sanctions regime that also targeted Iran’s vital oil exports.

The JCPOA was a landmark agreement between Iran and the P5 +1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom — plus Germany) signed in 2015; it provided clear guarantees and restrictions on Iran’s civilian use of nuclear technology, in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Exactly one year after Trump’s move, on May 8 this year Tehran announced that, if the EU bloc (the United Kingdom, France, Germany) continued failing to deliver the promised financial mechanism to bypass US secondary sanctions, Iran would gradually decrease its adherence to its JCPOA commitments.

Iran has also been accused of attempting to obstruct the passage of oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. The attack on a Japanese tanker on June 13 has received most attention, due to the disagreement between the United States and its regional ally the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on whether Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was to blame. On June 27 the UAE retracted its initial allegations against the IRGC, due to a lack of evidence. One of the most perplexing aspects of this controversy is the fact that the attack was carried out during a rare official visit of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to Tehran. Abe was, indeed, expected to attempt a mediation between Tehran and Washington. Tehran and Tokyo maintain cordial diplomatic relations based on oil trade, in spite of the close politico-military ties between Tokyo and Washington.

The circumstances surrounding the seizure of Iran’s Grace 1 also beg for clarification. British and Gibraltarian officials claim that they lawfully captured Grace 1 when it unexpectedly entered Gibraltar’s territorial waters. They claim the tanker was en route to Syria, effectively breaching the EU-imposed sanctions on oil exports to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. British officials claim to have acted upon a request of their counterparts in Gibraltar. However, the Spanish government insists that it was the British government that asked the Gibraltar authorities to cooperate in the operation, under significant US pressure. Moreover, there is no precedent for seizing ships suspected of smuggling oil to Syria as a means of enforcing the current EU sanctions.

It is highly likely that the suspicions of smuggling are correct: Panama’s authorities have confirmed that the tanker had navigated an unconventional route around the African continent through Gibraltar, rather than through the Suez Canal, as a means of disguising its movements. Moreover, Foreign Minister Zarif’s refusal to state its original destination — though denying it is in Syria — invites questions. Tehran says it refuses to provide any information that could help the United States to further impede Iranian oil exports.

Whatever that may be, the demand from British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt (before his removal last week), insisting on an Iranian public guarantee that the tanker will not reach Syrian ports, has created a political impasse. To provide such a guarantee, Zarif would be forced to either admit that the tanker was directed to Syrian ports, or to disclose its “real” destination, if such a thing does exist. Either way, Hunt’s handling of the situation cornered Zarif into a situation in which he could neither retrieve the tanker through diplomatic means, nor back down after what is widely perceived in Tehran as an unacceptable affront to Iran’s sovereignty and international standing.

This strategy begs the question of what exactly the British government was attempting to achieve: a single tanker makes little difference to the survival of the Assad regime, which is in any case dependent on Russian oil. The move is also at odds with the continuing UK role in the ongoing JCPOA negotiations. Such a crusade to uphold the letter of the EU-imposed sanctions is also out of character given the latent hostility that has overtaken EU-UK relations since the Brexit referendum in 2016.

But given the British government’s unpreparedness in the face of the Iranian retaliation, it is also clear that it had expected to act with impunity. The seizure of the Grace 1 should be seen as a desperate show of force. Indeed, one coming from a political class that refuses to face the reality that its failures are engineering a momentous collapse of the Westminster political order, and that its importance in the international system has been severely diminished since the days in which the British fleet ruled the waves.

British Action and Iranian Reaction

The timing of the seizure of the Grace 1 was also odd. It took place just a few days after the first confirmed breach of the JCPOA on part of Iran, but also right after the launch of the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), which the United Kingdom contributed to designing. Zarif announced on July 1 that Iran was ready to surpass the 300kg limit on production of low-level enriched uranium. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed the breach shortly after, the first documented infringement, on Iran’s part, of the JCPOA terms.

It is estimated that during the height of the nuclear standoff between Iran and Washington, Tehran had up to 10,000 kg of low-level enriched uranium. So it is clear that this deliberate breach does not represent a military threat. Rather, it is a clear message to the EU bloc that Tehran’s patience is running out. Europe has failed to deliver on its promises of ensuring continued economic benefits to Tehran for remaining in the deal.

The newly unveiled INSTEX was welcomed as a step in the right direction to bypass US sanctions. But for the Iranian regime, and for the Iranian people, it has been too little, too late. On June 30 Iran’s ambassador to the UN Majid Takht Ravanchi commented, “INSTEX in its current condition isn’t enough. This mechanism without money is like a beautiful car without fuel.” It was widely expected that the initial volume of financial transfers through INSTEX would disappoint Tehran’s long wait. The fact that the Rouhani government did not back down from the symbolic breach of nuclear limitations was to be expected for reasons of domestic credibility and added diplomatic leverage.

On July 1, after the first breach, Iran announced a second planned breach for July 7, this time on the percentage level of uranium enrichment. Uranium enrichment is the process through which the percentage of fissile material found in natural uranium (usually less than 0.7 percent) is artificially augmented, making it a more efficient fuel. It is a standard, necessary procedure for fueling commercial nuclear power reactors.

The breach took place as planned. The sanctioned limit of 3.7 percent was broken, reportedly to just under 4.5 percent. In order to build a functioning nuclear device, it is necessary to use uranium enriched to at least 90 percent. Nuclear scientists agree that the danger threshold is around 20 percent, after which the time required to reach 90 percent is halved. As with the case of the first breach, it is clear that it was another diplomatic signal to the EU bloc, and could not be said to represent an attempt to “go nuclear.”

If Spanish-government claims that the Grace 1 seizure came after intense US pressure are to be believed, it seems that this action can be attributed to the US desire to retaliate against both the increased nuclear activity of Iran, and the establishment of INSTEX. The Grace 1 seizure increases the reach of the “maximum pressure” strategy targeting Iranian oil exports to previously uncharted territories. Hawks in Washington have long held the view that Iran is not entitled to any nuclear technology, insisting that there is always the potential for a covert military program. The EU bloc’s creation of INSTEX is also unwelcome in Washington. It represents the first concrete, though still too feeble, move by EU leaders to conduct an independent foreign policy that effectively reins in the incoherent and aggressive spasms coming from the United States.

As for the seizure of the Stena Impero, new evidence has surfaced confirming that this was a deliberate seizure rather than a response to an alleged accidental collision between the tanker and an Iranian fishing boat. Tehran officials have also been vocal about it being an “eye for an eye” retribution for the seizure of Grace 1 and are now openly advocating for an exchange diplomacy. It is to be noted that the seizure took place on the afternoon of July 19, just hours after Iranian diplomatic moves for the release of Grace 1 had suffered a fatal blow. That same morning, a court in Gibraltar ruled in favor of a one-month extension of the detention of the Iranian vessel and its crew.

A Single Crisis, Multiple Sources of Tension

It is tempting to look at the tensions between Iran and the United Kingdom as a mere reflection of the cold war being waged between Washington and Tehran. However, the distrust between the two countries is deeply rooted in the historical memory of the unequal interaction between Iran and the British Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is also important to analyze the recent development of the tension between London and Tehran on its own terms, given the role that domestic political conflict is playing in the overall trajectory of the dispute. While Tehran-London tensions may have been precipitated by Trump’s escalation, they actually follow a distinct pattern — one much more ambiguous, and thus much more dangerous, for regional and global peace.

In fact, the unresolved standoff on the two seized oil tankers is but one factor fueling the animosity; the tanker dispute would be the easiest to settle, were it not for the well-demonstrated lack of any diplomatic talent on the part of Britain’s newly elected prime minister, Boris Johnson, and his disagreeable cabinet. The other two leading sources of tension are the United Kingdom’s rather lackadaisical approach toward saving JCPOA, compared to its German and French counterparts, and the detention of British-Iranian citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran.

Both of these disputes are rooted in long-standing political disagreements between London and Tehran. In the first case, Iran’s general dissatisfaction with the results of the EU bloc’s efforts to save the deal to date is aggravated by what is perceived as United Kingdom’s hedging between its allegiance to Europe and its desire to form a closer strategic partnership with the United States, post-Brexit. In the second case, the detention of Zaghari-Ratcliffe is but the latest case of Iran’s weaponization of state-sanctioned kidnappings of British citizens to pressure the British government. However, it is widely reported that one of the conditions for the release of the British citizen is the payment of a £400 million debt owed by the British government to Tehran over a tank sale dating to prior to the 1979 revolution.

Painful History

What underlies these three points of conflict, from Tehran’s perspective, is London’s refusal to recognize it as an equal partner on the international stage. The refusal to pay old debts, the deliberate aggression against an Iranian tanker, and the dissonance between London’s words and actions is eerily reminiscent of old imperial relations. Iran’s relations with the British Empire were a painful history of humiliation and semicolonial status. The humiliation of the “unequal treaties” of the nineteenth century through which England and Russia tore apart pieces of Iranian territories in their Great Game for control of Central Asia fueled the first anti-imperialist protest in Iran in 1890, known as the Tobacco Protest. Throughout the twentieth century, the most defining moment for Iran-British relations was the 1953 UK-US coup against the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. This coup came after Mossadegh’s attempted nationalization of Iranian oil, which had previously been in the hands of British firms. It brought about the reinstallment of the exiled shah, and the start of two decades of brutal dictatorship. It is no coincidence that Iranians on all sides of the political spectrum still hold a deep resentment towards the British government, to the point that some secularist opponents of the regime have rallied behind the absurd conspiracy theory which claims Khomeini was a British agent, and that the 1979 revolution was somehow a repeat of the 1953 coup, again aimed at protecting British economic interests.

But the specter of the British Empire lingers over Westminster, as much as it still embitters policy makers in Tehran. When questioned on the Stena Impero seizure, former Royal Navy head Lord West commented, “What I find extraordinary is that we knew that the Iranians would try something like this a few days ago.” The seizure of the Stena Impero happened because British ministers had failed to act upon the direct warnings by military officials. This is just one example of the political obtuseness of the political class in Westminster: as with the ongoing Brexit crisis, a firm grasp on political reality seems to continuously elude British MPs. Strikingly, British officials acted as if they still believed that the United Kingdom’s naval superiority could not be seriously jeopardized. It seems they did not fully take into account the significant reduction in both absolute and comparative power that Britain has undergone since the crushing humiliation of the 1956 Suez crisis. Imperial nostalgia, or perhaps the denial of the sudden imperial collapse that England underwent between 1956 and the 1970s, seems to be a common denominator in the recent meltdown of British politics. On one hand, the foreseen disaster of the Stena Impero; on the other, the more or less sincere delusion of hard Brexiteers of a strong US-UK partnership, and the possibility for a new “global Britain.”

Dangerous Standoff

The fact that the current tanker standoff is not rooted in any objective conflict of interests between Iran and the United Kingdom, but rather in a mixture of historical animosities and political miscommunication, should alert everybody to the increased danger of a military conflict in the Gulf. As time goes on, public opinion becomes more hostile, and Boris Johnson starts his tenure at Number 10, the political and ideological stakes for both governments will become higher and higher. It will become a matter of proving to former imperial foes that Iran is a sovereign, independent country, and a matter of proving to itself and the skeptical European Union that Britain is still great.

Unless serious steps to ease tension are immediately taken, the increased presence of British and American military ships in the Gulf is a ticking time bomb, waiting to go off. Beyond the current crisis, this incident should be a wake-up call for Westminster to get it together before the irreparable disaster of Brexit. If Britain wants to be “great,” it has to learn to survive in a changed international system in which it is but the periphery. Killing the specter of empire is key to the political future of the United Kingdom and Europe, as well as to the normalization of relations with Iran.