Brexit has evidently opened a Pandora’s Box in British politics and created a high level of uncertainty in many policy areas. While its implications for Britain’s economy and trade relations with the European Union have been the subject of heated debates, its impact on other international issues of significance has been mostly neglected. The Iran nuclear agreement, known more formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is one such issue.
The multilateral deal, signed in July 2015 between the Islamic Republic of Iran on the one hand and the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia on the other after marathon negotiations, took a severe blow in May last year, when US President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled his country out of the accord and subsequently reinstated comprehensive nuclear sanctions against Iran. Unless Article 50 is revoked, Brexit will probably affect Britain’s commitment to the JCPOA and hurt European efforts, spearheaded by Germany, France and Britain (E3), to save the deal from collapsing. This is for political and economic factors, lying inside and outside of the UK.
Internally, an all-out execution of Brexit, including a “no deal” or hard divorce, that would satisfy “leave” campaigners, will likely push British politics to the right and empower the more hard-line Conservatives in parliament — not least those from the so-called European Research Group (ERG) — who are sympathetic to the Trump administration. This would spell trouble for Tehran and might encourage London to toe Washington’s line on the JCPOA, especially if British Eurosceptics in power anticipate another victory for Trump in the 2020 US presidential elections, a scenario that has gained traction in the wake of the largely exonerating Mueller Report.
Iranian-British ties have been strained over the past few years. A major source of tension is the ongoing dispute about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual citizen who has been in jail in Iran since April 2016 on charges of espionage and subversion. Efforts by past and present foreign secretaries, including pro-Brexit MP Boris Johnson, have failed to secure Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release.
In late February, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced government plans to expand a terrorist ban on Hezbollah — Iran’s linchpin regional proxy — and blacklist the Lebanese group in its entirety for its “destabilising” behaviour in the Middle East. Now, according to British law, anyone who joins Hezbollah or urges support for it will be committing a criminal offence that could lead to a prison sentence of up to ten years. Iran was quick to respond, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi criticising the British government for “deliberately ignoring a large part of the Lebanese people”, given Hezbollah’s strong presence in the Lebanese government. The measure was generally seen in Tehran as an attempt by London to close ranks with Washington and Tel Aviv against Iranian interests in the region.
Late last year, Iran had reportedly targeted key parts of Britain’s national infrastructure during a “major cyber assault” that, according to Sky News, compromised “10,204 data records… stolen from the parliament global address lists” among other things. Such tensions are likely to intensify in the post-Brexit era if Prime Minister Theresa May gives way to a more hawkish politician.
Externally, an EU-independent Britain will have to rely more on trade with the United States as well as its traditional Arab allies in the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to compensate for the economic loss which is likely to be incurred by the exit from the European Union. Most of these non-EU partners have been consistently critical of the nuclear deal with Iran.
The signs of this near dependence can already be seen in Britain’s crucial, and lucrative, support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. In Britain’s Hidden War, a recent Channel 4 documentary about the extent of UK involvement in the Yemen campaign, a former British technician stationed in Saudi Arabia until recently argued that had Britain’s support — including the provision of Typhoon aircraft, ammunition and training — been withdrawn, then “in seven to 14 days there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky” over Yemen. A former Saudi Air Force officer added that despite US-supplied jets, British support is so crucial that “without the Typhoon they will stop the war”.
Yet, such support wasn’t withdrawn, even after the Khashoggi scandal when Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland all halted arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to its ongoing killing of civilians, and the US Congress took measures to end American assistance to the Saudi campaign. It is worth noting that according to UN sources, a Yemeni child under the age of 5 dies every ten minutes from entirely preventable war-related causes while over 22 million Yemenis need humanitarian assistance and over 8 million are at risk of starvation.
Given the increasing reputational costs of involvement, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has tried to justify his government’s continuing support for the Yemen war machinery on “moral” grounds but, in fact, it is more plausibly driven by economic calculations. London has licensed at least £4.7 billion worth of weapons exports to Saudi Arabia and £860m to its coalition partners since the start of the war in early 2015. These trends and tendencies are expected to gain momentum after Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
It is not yet entirely clear what form Brexit will take or even if it will come to pass. However, the more that London becomes reliant on its anti-Iran partners in the Middle East and across the Atlantic, the less motivation it will have to adopt a moderate stance on the Islamic Republic and its nuclear and missile programmes, as well as its regional activities. This does not necessarily mean that Britain will abandon the JCPOA in the wake of Brexit, but it will likely refrain from making as much effort as other European powers to keep Iran in the deal.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.