A chain of events has been triggered that is increasingly exposing the UK diplomatically and militarily in the Gulf.
The UK has put British shipping on maximum alert in the Gulf, just as the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is forced to admit that – due to successive defence cuts – the UK does not have the resources to defend British vessels.
Simultaneously, the UK is battling diplomatically to keep the nuclear deal with Iran alive – a path the US rejects.
British officials insist there is no connection between freedom of navigation and the preservation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is known. But the two issues are inextricably linked.
British officials weighed the implications for the nuclear deal before British marines seized Grace 1, an Iranian-owned oil tanker, off the strait of Gibraltar following a request from the US.
On one side of the ledger, the UK prides itself on upholding international law, including sanctions. The cargo was in breach of EU law because it was taking oil to Syria.
But on the other side of the ledger, capturing Grace 1 would have little practical impact on Syria since it can still import oil from Russia. Moreover, if the UK went ahead with the seizure, it would be locked into a long legal battle, while British shipping in the Gulf would be vulnerable to Iranian reprisals and damage.
The UK did not need another row with Iran just as the talks between Tehran, and the UK, France and Germany to rescue the nuclear deal reached their most sensitive stage.
Tehran had for weeks been gradually reducing its commitments under the deal, in a calibrated effort to force Europe to do more to challenge US policy.
Lord Howell, a former Conservative cabinet minister and chairman of the Lords international relations committee, asked his government on Thursday whether it “was such a good idea to raid the Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar in the first place”. He said: “Obviously we want to stop oil getting to President Assad, although probably he can get all the oil he wants from Russia. Are we not supposed to be on the same side as the Iranians on the question of nuclear proliferation and control? Can we have a firm assurance that we did this not just at the say-so of the US?”
Lady Goldie, for the government, insisted the request to intercept the ship came from the government of Gibraltar, but Foreign Office officials in the past have indicated the biggest factor in play was pressure from the US.
Speaking on the BBC, Nathalie Tocci, the special adviser to the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, put the UK decision in a wider political context. “The UK is feeling its own fragility and a fear of isolation as it tries to cut off its membership from the EU. There’s a line connecting the Iran story and the UK ambassador to the US.” [Continue reading…]