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Britain should avoid playing the role of spoiler in Gulf crisis

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech during the parliamentary session held to receive votes of confidence for 4 ministers at the Iranian Parliament, in Tehran, Iran on 3 September 2019. [Iranian Presidency / Handout - Anadolu Agency]
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech in Tehran, Iran on 3 September 2019 [Iranian Presidency/Anadolu Agency]

Tensions between Iran and the US are heating up, as demonstrated by this week’s proceedings at the United Nations General Assembly.

The Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, refused to engage in pointless theatrical diplomacy by meeting with US President, Donald Trump.

The failed French-led initiative to engineer a meeting between Rouhani and Trump came on the heels of a spike in tensions in the Gulf following attacks on Saudi oil facilities on 14 September.

On current trajectory, Iran is headed for a clash with the United States and its allies in the Gulf, notably Saudi Arabia.

Amid this escalating crisis, the British government has apparently decided to revert to its old role as a spoiler, trying to aggravate tensions whilst taking care that British interests don’t take a direct hit.

READ: UK, France react to Iran’s statement on nuclear deal

In his latest parliamentary statement on Iran, British Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, gave a major indication of the British government’s intentions in the decisive months ahead.

The path chosen by Raab and the higher reaches of the Tory Party may be consistent with their pro-American instincts but it is profoundly at odds with long-term British interests in the Middle East.

Iran is going to emerge from this crisis as a stronger country and it is in the British interest not to sabotage its relations with Iran for another generation.

UK as spoiler

Back in August, I argued that the UK and Iran are heading for a crash. There is no indication that this outlook has changed. On the contrary, there are now clear signs and indications that the UK is about to harden its position on Iran.

Beside Raab’s latest parliamentary statement on Iran, influential Tory voices networked into Washington’s foreign policy establishment are giving away strong clues as to a shift in the UK’s posture in the region.

Former defence secretary, and leading Tory, Liam Fox, is advising the British government to abandon the landmark 2015 nuclear deal. Addressing the right-wing Heritage Foundation in Washington, Fox voiced support for the American policy of driving Iranian oil exports to zero.

READ: Iran to accept new nuclear deal in return of lifting US sanctions

Whilst the Iran nuclear deal is on the threshold of collapse, and hitherto British policy on this issue has not diverted from the other European co-signatories to the deal, any move by the UK to enforce US-instigated sanctions is bound to draw a sharp response from Iran.

In British foreign policy circles, Iran is often painted as a regional spoiler whose main role in the region is to exert a disruptive influence. Leaving aside questions about the accuracy (or lack thereof) of attributing such a reductive role to West Asia’s leading power, the real irony is that it is the UK that often plays the role of spoiler in the region.

British support for Saudi Arabia is a major aggravating factor in regional tensions. This is particularly the case in respect to the conflict in Yemen, where Britain has played the leading role in supporting Saudi Arabia’s war effort.

The conflict in Yemen is central to escalating tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and it is noteworthy that the Yemeni armed forces (allied to the Houthi/Ansarullah movement) claimed responsibility for the drone-led attack on the Saudi Aramco oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais.

What kind of breakdown?

Relations between Iran and the UK are going to crash at some point, as they have done repeatedly in the past. As things stand, a near-complete breakdown in relations is set to occur sooner rather than later. That is not in question, the real issue is the scale, severity and longevity of the looming crash.

The crash will be severe and long-standing if anti-Iranian elements in the British establishment have the final say. This position is set out most eloquently by veteran British diplomat and Arabist, Sir John Jenkins, whose columns in the Arab News provide insights into the strategising of the anti-Iranian camp in the British foreign policy community.

READ: EU calls for maintaining nuclear deal with Iran

A former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Jenkins argues against “appeasing” Iran whilst setting out a case for a “united front” against Tehran. Make no mistake about it, Jenkin’s prescriptive approach is a pathway to a direct military clash between Iran and the UK, something that hasn’t happened for 78 years, since the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in the early stages of the Second World War.

Anglo-Iranian relations are complicated enough as it is, with multiple ongoing disputes and points of tension, notably legal wrangles over a 1970s tank deal gone wrong and Iran’s detention of dual British-Iranian nationals.

Amid this escalating crisis, with the threat of a major regional war now a distinct possibility, the last thing we need is pro-Saudi opportunists like Jenkins trying their level best to misrepresent the facts and distorting the big strategic picture.

The cold, hard reality is that post-Brexit Britain can ill afford to remain estranged from West Asia’s leading power for a whole generation.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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