On 24 July 2019, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (a.k.a. Boris Johnson) became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (UK). This was a widely expected result given the ruling Conservative Party’s increasingly hard stance on Brexit. However, the first foreign policy challenge that the new Prime Minister will have to face is not related to Brexit or Europe but to the Arab Gulf, a region in which the UK retains a traditionally privileged role for over 200 years and is regarded as a key strategic region for London’s future outside the European Union (EU). When dealing with the Arab Gulf, the UK’s new Prime Minister is likely to be forced to choose between the position of its main international ally, the United States (US), and the interests of the influential British Iranian Chamber of Commerce (BICC). While the former is keen to enlist the UK to pressure Iran into changing its foreign policy, the latter—founded and led by Lord Norman Lamont of Lerwick—continues to lobby for deeper UK-Iran economic cooperation.
Seized Oil Tankers
On 19 July, the Stena Impero, a British oil tanker transiting in the Strait of Hormuz, was interdicted by Iranian forces and is currently held at Bandar Abbas port in Iran. Tehran did very little to hide that the move came as retaliation following the UK’s decision to seize the Grace 1, an Iranian oil tanker held in Gibraltar by UK authorities, for carrying oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. Johnson will likely be forced to decide between two different courses of action.
Johnson may decide to align the UK firmly with the US and to the Trump Administration’s strategy of exerting maximum pressure on Tehran to force the Islamic Republic into reducing its aggressive regional stance and into negotiations with regard to its ballistic missile programme. This would signal a decisive shift from the past. Previous UK governments, along with Germany and France, advocated a softer approach towards Iran and criticised the US decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In immediate, practical, terms a stronger UK approach vis-à-vis the Ayatollah’s regime in Tehran could result in a UK-led EU naval mission in the Strait of Hormuz to prevent what (former) Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, called ‘future acts of state piracy.’
Alternatively, Johnson could use the channel of communication opened by UK officials with Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to find a negotiated settlement for the release of both tankers. This would certainly be the solution preferred by the BICC led by former Conservative MP, Lord Norman Lamont of Lerwick. Lamont lobbied for the development of a solid business relationship with Iran since the creation of the BICC in 1988, when Margaret Thatcher resided in Number 10. The power of the BICC grew significantly when Lamont became Chancellor of the Exchequer in John Major’s government, remained unaltered during the Tony Blair era and continues to influence London’s foreign policy decision making until now. For instance, the BICC was able to involve several UK companies such as British Petroleum, BVAA and Quercus in important projects inside Iran thus encouraging successive UK governments to support sanctions relief to Tehran.
The BICC has so far influenced to some degree all governments in the UK from 1988 onwards and, given the continued level of engagement of British businesses in and with Iran, is likely to retain leverage over the new cabinet. However, especially in case of a hard Brexit—triggered automatically in case London and Brussels do not find an agreement on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU—there may be need to further develop the special relationship to the US. A firm response to counter the threat posed by Iran to the freedom of navigation in the Gulf and to the international oil trade would certainly enhance US-UK synergy in global affairs. This would certainly find consensus among the UK’s traditional Arab allies in the Gulf—which feel increasingly threatened by Iran while maintaining an interest in stronger commercial, political, defence and security ties to London.
26 July 2019