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Gulf standoff with no plan B

Britain’s initiative to form a naval force to protect oil tankers in the Gulf received only a cautious response from allies, including the US, writes Manal Lotfy in London

Manal Lotfy , Wednesday 31 Jul 2019
Iranian Revolutionary Guards and a British-flagged tanker (Photo: AFP)
Iranian Revolutionary Guards and a British-flagged tanker (Photo: AFP)

It was as embarrassing to Britain as it can get. A new video and audio released by Iran shows an Iranian Revolutionary Guard officer telling a British warship not to interfere or put their “life in danger” as the paramilitary force, using speedboats and a helicopter, seized a UK-flagged commercial vessel in the Strait of Hormuz earlier this month.

The video includes a shot apparently filmed on the day of the 19 July incident from above the British warship, Foxtrot 236, that was in the vicinity of the oil tanker Stena Impero, showing the British navy unable to prevent Iran’s seizure of the ship in the critical waterway. It is Iranian propaganda at its best.

The exchanges between the two sides were released by Tehran as Royal Navy destroyer HMS Duncan arrived in the Gulf to protect British ships. The UK’s Ministry of Defence said that HMS Duncan will join the frigate HMS Montrose in the Gulf to defend freedom of navigation until a diplomatic resolution is found to secure the key waterway.

Britain has found itself in the middle of an escalation with Tehran since British Royal Marines took part in the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker off Gibraltar. Officials there initially said the 4 July seizure happened on orders from the US. The UK says the tanker was suspected of violating sanctions on oil shipments to Syria.

With Iran refusing to free the British oil tanker before Britain does the same, Britain is facing a thorny situation with a political and military cost.

Despite calls to her European and American allies, Britain stands almost alone in the escalation with Iran.

A British initiative to form a multinational naval force to protect oil tankers in the Gulf received harsh criticism from Iran and a cautious response from Europe and the United States.

The reluctance to increase the military presence in the Gulf is understandable. Any error or miscalculated move could risk a military clash and hampering navigation in international waters, which will harm all parties involved and the international economy.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said a force like that proposed by the UK would only make matters worse.

France said it was not willing to send extra military assets to the Gulf, but would share information and coordinate its currently deployed assets.

The US administration said it is already monitoring the area and developing a “multinational maritime effort” dubbed Operation Sentinel to increase surveillance and security in key Middle East waterways.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told an audience in Washington Monday that the US is “going to build out a maritime security plan” to secure the strait.

“It will take more time than we wish it would take, but I’m very confident that the world understands its importance, and that America is prepared to be a significant part of that, but we need countries from all across the world to assist us,” he said.

New UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab warned Iran if it wants to “come out of the dark” it must follow international rules and release the captured oil tanker. When asked about support in the conflict from other nations, Mr Raab said he wants to see a European-led approach, but it would also be important to have support from the US, to make it “viable and effective”.

The foreign secretary added this should “not be a geopolitical dispute between the EU and the US”.

But the UK seeking support from the US has infuriated Germany, after Washington’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015.

Rolf  Mützenich, acting parliamentary leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), told the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung: “After the takeover by Boris Johnson, it remains to be seen whether the announced initiatives by the old government are still resilient.”

“Britain is now returning to a robust American-flagged military mission,” Mützenich added, before warning this would create an “enormous escalation risk”.

Mützenich insisted Germany will “do everything for a diplomatic solution” as part of its current membership in the UN Security Council.

He warned: “I advise those who are now hastily committed to taking certain steps not to disturb the de-escalation talks.”

Britain’s handling of the oil tanker crisis faces criticism even inside the UK.

Former Royal Navy officer Chris Parry attacked the government’s response to the Iran tanker standoff as he claimed the approach failed to convince both the European Union and the US to support the UK in the counterattack.

Speaking to LBC Radio, the rear-admiral claimed former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt’s “muddled thinking” in assuming the EU would support his plan, without consulting other leaders first, cost the UK.

The former Royal Navy official blamed “all sorts of factions going forward and backwards” in Downing Street for the “appalling” response. 

He said: “I don’t think the government did a good job at all… It was absolutely appalling, it put no pressure on the Iranians at all. It didn’t bring in the Americans, who the Iranians really fear. And the European Union seems to have gone AWOL. So not a great plan.”

“And now our fight is with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. They’re the ones making all the troubles in the Gulf at the moment. I don’t think the Iranian government itself is really in control,” he added.

The rear-admiral appeared confident the new government under Boris Johnson’s leadership would get things back under control and would attract the support of the UK’s European and American allies.

However, it could be wishful thinking.

Talks to try to save Iran nuclear deal have been held this week. After meeting officials from Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China in Vienna, a senior Iranian official said the atmosphere had been “constructive”.

The aim of the emergency talks was to ease recent tensions, and keep the 2015 agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), alive.

Arriving at the meeting, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said he considered the seizing of its oil tanker as breach of the JCPOA, and Iran also described as “provocative” British proposals for a European-led mission to escort tankers through the Strait of Hormuz.

China’s representative Fu Cong said all parties had “expressed their commitment to safeguard JCPOA and expressed their strong opposition against the US unilateral imposition of sanctions”.

With President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran at a crossroads, Britain’s willingness to ally itself with Washington will weaken its stand with the EU. So, UK’s handling of the oil tanker crisis will be monitored in Washington and EU capitals as a sign of British foreign policy under Boris Johnson.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 1 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Gulf standoff with no plan B   

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