We live in times of great change. Yet amidst the fog formed by the shift in power from West to East or the rise of artificial intelligence upending old industries, Britain’s global interests are remarkably clear. As a free trading island nation, open shipping lanes have always been crucial to our prosperity and security. So when, nearly seventy years after the Suez crisis, another critical artery for U.K. trade in the Middle East was threatened, we clearly had strong reasons to act.
Direct missile attacks from the Houthis on HMS Diamond then ended any strategic debate and compelled the Government to respond. To do anything less would have invited further attacks on our people and assets.
But until commercial shipping is able to pass through the Red Sea unmolested, the Houthi’s piracy will cost us in our pockets. Ships travelling on the European-Asian maritime highway will continue to be diverted around the Cape of Good Hope, taking longer and costing more. If the Houthis, or the Iranians themselves, turn their cheap and plentiful drones to disrupt the passage of energy supply, the inflationary impact to the U.K., and global economy, will be far worse.
Behind the Houthis lies the hand of Iran who have spent years training and supplying them as one of their many regional proxies. Indeed, Hamas’s October 7th massacre would not have been possible without Iran, even if Tehran’s tactical involvement is currently unclear. And in the last fortnight alone the Iranian regime itself has sent a wave of violence reverberating through the region, striking Syria, Pakistan and US assets in Iraq and Syria.
Against this backdrop, it cannot be business as usual for the UK’s posture towards Iran. It’s time we took the fanatical Iranian regime at their word and treated them as the zealots they openly profess to be. Their friends the Houthis should be proscribed as a terrorist group as the American Government has now done for the second time, as should the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp, which we have been painfully slow to do.
That the Biden administration has been forced to reverse its earlier de-listing of the Houthis shows the naïveté of its approach to Iran and its proxies - one which the UK has largely gone along with. Much like Biden’s attempts to resurrect the flawed Iran Nuclear deal, such diplomatic efforts are doomed to fail.
But the response must go well beyond clarifying the legal definitions of the actions of this pariah state and their proxies. The Houthis’s behaviour forces EU states to confront the coming geopolitical reckoning. A combination of an inability to deploy naval assets in the case of Germany and an unwillingness in the case of France and Italy has thus far left the U.K. and US tasked with restoring order at sea. But the option for Europe to free-ride on US power is disappearing. A second Trump presidency is the most likely outcome of the 2024 election and it would appear that he, like many of his predecessors, does not view the Red Sea as a critical interest. China’s unprecedented military build up in the Pacific and South China Sea clearly poses the greatest challenge to America and to contain China Trump knows he will have to disengage from less strategically important theatres.
The U.K. must ready itself too. We must ask difficult questions about the availability of our current naval fleet as part of a review of current capability. But in the meantime we must prioritise where we deploy our assets. It is clear now, as it was in 1956, that the volume of trade passing through shipping lanes in the Middle East makes them crucial to our prosperity. And it is also clear that we are well placed to be able to project force there, for instance with a base in Bahrain. As America pivots to the Pacific to confront the defining geopolitical challenge of the century, the U.K. should secure the space that Iran and her proxies will otherwise exploit. While our own naval tilt to the Pacific is alluring, our strategic interests lie above all in the defence of Europe and our near-abroad. In the end, realism must prevail over romance.
From supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression to promoting stability in the Red Sea, successive Conservative Prime Minister’s have led Europe. As Trump and Washington rightly focus their time and resources on China, our leadership will only become more important. We must start persuading and, if necessary, cajoling our European partners to follow us, or resign ourselves to permanent instability.
Robert Jenrick is MP for Newark and a former cabinet minister