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New British PM will face Iran challenge

Boris Johnson will have to navigate not just the spat with Teheran but also complex, difficult diplomacy with the US and EU.

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Iranian Revolutionary Guards patrolling around the Stena Impero; Mr Johnson must navigate the domestic politics of the seizure with no Conservative majority in the UK House of Commons.

WITH a transition of power underway in London, the nation is facing into a gathering storm following Iran's seizure of a UK-flagged tanker. This is a key challenge for the new prime minister because he will have to navigate not just the spat with Teheran, but also complex, difficult diplomacy with the United States and EU at a time when both alliances are under strain.

The timing of this potential crisis is far from ideal for London. For it comes not just with the change of government on Wednesday afternoon, but also at a time when Brexit deadlines are mounting with the United Kingdom scheduled to leave the Brussels-based club in around 100 days.

Indeed, some supporters of Boris Johnson have even suggested that the seizure of the Stena Imperorepresents a major policy failure that stems from ministers having taken their eyes off the ball in the face of mounting domestic pressures.

On Monday, Theresa May's outgoing administration decided that the best next step will be to "put together a European-maritime protection mission to support safe passage of crew and cargo" in the Strait of Hormuz where one-fifth's of the world's oil and a quarter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) passes. Within this diplomatic-speak lies an important UK decision in favour of Europe's continued support for the Iran nuclear deal.

Inevitably, this has not proved popular with Atlanticist supporters of Mr Johnson, who is expected to take office on Wednesday, in 10 Downing Street. Take the example of former defence secretary Michael Fallon who challenged the government on Monday to declare that it would make sense for Washington to be included in the proposed force if it wished to join.

Mrs May's team admitted on Monday that the United States had first requested the United Kingdom contribute to a US-led maritime protection force on June 24, leading to a formal request on June 30.

And it is quite possible that, in coming days, the new government will find ways for the potential European maritime force to be joined up, in some way, with US assets, and potentially those of others too, including North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato).

What this underlines is that, behind the ship's seizure last week by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, there is a much bigger, geo-strategic issue in play. That is the fallout of US President Donald Trump's decision last year that he will no longer recertify the Iranian nuclear deal, one of the biggest foreign policy choices of his term of office.

IMMEDIATELY COUNTERMANDED

At the time, Mr Trump's decision was immediately countermanded by French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Mrs May, who declared that their nations will not just remain signatories to the nuclear agreement, but will work "collectively on a broader framework" with Teheran. The clash between the United States and the EU on this issue therefore threatens continued transatlantic tensions which will be a key challenge for the new UK prime minister to grapple with.

Of course, deep US-European discord over Teheran is not unprecedented. In the 1990s, significant disagreements surfaced when Congress passed legislation - including the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) - which punished European firms for doing business in those countries. While the United States and Europe ultimately worked through those issues, the stakes in play are even bigger this time, given growing concerns of potential conflict in the region.

Moving forward, while European allies would like the Trump team to re-engage with Teheran, this appears unlikely any time soon.

The ball therefore remains in the court of the continent's leaders to try to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal, or remnants of it, although it remains unclear what exact stance Mr Johnson will take.

Take the example of Mr Macron who has indicated multiple times that France and other willing partners "will work collectively on a broader framework, covering nuclear activity, the post-2025 period, ballistic activity, and stability in the Middle-East, notably Syria, Yemen, and Iraq". From this perspective, the 2015 nuclear agreement will be only the "first pillar" of a broader framework that would also restrict Iran's regional influence, its ballistic missiles and its nuclear activities post-2025, when the existing deal expires.

Mr Trump had indicated last year that such an agreement may be acceptable to him, saying to Mr Macron: "You know, in life, you have to be flexible; and as leaders of countries, you have to show some flexibility . . . We could have at least an agreement among ourselves fairly quickly . . . I think we're fairly close to understanding each other."

Yet, as of today, with the most recent crisis hardening attitudes on both sides, that prospect seems further off than ever, with Mr Trump saying on Monday that Washington may be nearer war than negotiations with Teheran, and that "we're ready for the absolute worst".

INCREASED STRIDENCY

A key, growing challenge for Europe is not just Mr Trump's increased stridency against Iran, but also that President Hassan Rouhani has indicated his own weakening commitment to the agreement. Mr Rouhani, for instance, has said that Teheran will not reverse its decision to increase uranium enrichment beyond the limits set by 2015 accord.

This shifting sand context makes the immediate ship seizure issue in hand so tricky for London, well beyond the challenges of limited Royal Navy options in the face of defence cutbacks in the last few decades.

Moreover, with no Conservative majority in the UK House of Commons, the new prime minister must also navigate the domestic politics of the Stena Impero seizure at the same time as resolving the prior issue of the UK's decision to apprehend only days earlier the Iranian-flagged Grace 1 ship in Gibraltar for allegedly evading UN sanctions.

While some leading opposition Labour Party figures have condemned Iran for its actions, including Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, others warn of a slide to potential war.

Take the example of Labour's Shadow Justice Minister Richard Burgon who has warned the government about not becoming Mr Trump's "sidekick" in a potential conflict that he argued could be worse than the 2003 Iraq War.

Taken overall, the UK's new prime minister therefore faces into a very knotty situation, on multiple domestic and foreign fronts.

Not only must he try to de-escalate tensions with Teheran, while smoothing ties with Washington and key EU allies, he must also juggle this at a time when his grip on power will be weak, which - with Brexit challenges mounting - could yet trigger a general election.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics