When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was wagging his finger at the UK earlier this month shouting “peace for peace, war for war and oil for oil”, he clearly knew very well the vulnerabilities of his British counterparts. He was talking to a rusty political class wearied by Brexit, and decided to play them like a fiddle.
The Gibraltar high court decided on Thursday to release the Iranian supertanker Grace 1 after a fierce legal battle, in which President Trump’s administration wanted to nudge the UK further into its pocket, but came out with a bruising humiliation.
Theresa May’s government helped to seize the Iranian tanker at the beginning of July at the apparent behest of the US. It looked amateurish at first glance, and there is little surprise that it backfired. The claim was that the ship was taken to prevent a breach of EU sanctions on selling oil into Syria, but there was much speculation that the UK wanted to block Iran’s right to sell its oil to other nations simply to appease Trump.
It appears this week that Iran has ended up in a better position. Now it can sell oil with the legal power of a court ruling in an EU member state.
Meanwhile in London, Boris Johnson has focused his so-called “war cabinet” on one single target: getting the UK out of the EU by 31 October. Brexit sweeps everything else from its path. There seems to be little thought given to foreign policy: over Iran, Hong Kong, Russia or Kashmir.
The tanker squabble must seem like a needless distraction in this context: a can ripe for kicking down the road. And so by distancing itself from this protracted standoff, and throwing the ball in the hands of the Gibraltar court, the government in London has sought to avoid a diplomatic backlash from Washington.
In the background, the UK is under tremendous pressure from the US to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. During his visit to London this week, Trump’s arch-hawk National Security Advisor John Bolton encouraged the government to harden its position on Iran and the Chinese communications giant Huawei.
The UK can perhaps use its relationship with Huawei as leverage in future trade deal negotiations with the US, but the release of the Grace 1 will be a painful blow to Bolton.
And more might follow. Iran is incrementally scaling back its compliance with the nuclear deal, but Britain and other European signatories want to step in. There has been a smaller row over European plans to pursue a solution with Iran during the forthcoming G7 summit in Biarritz, which would represent a second major blow to the US’ Iran policy in one month.
The release of the Grace 1 is expected to set the course for the release of the Stena Empero, the British-flagged tanker which was impounded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in the Strait of Hormuz as a retaliatory measure. Its release now would give weight to Rouhani’s new “oil-for-oil” doctrine.
At the same time a message has been sent that Europe will not tolerate the harassment of ships in its waters. The new rules play in Iran’s hands, reflecting a desire in Europe to dent the Trump administration’s credibility in this area. From here, after all, who will take Trump’s policy on Iran with any degree of seriousness?
The UK was more canny. By stepping aside in the legal dispute, it convinced the Iranians that, unlike the US, it seized their tanker on concerns about the destination (Syria) not the oil source (Iran).
This offers a perfect exit for Iran, which might have worried it was trapped in a vicious cycle. The Europeans too have some leverage to push Iran to restore security norms in Gulf waters.
And slap bang in the middle of the tug-of-war between the US and Iran, the UK will remain. For now, it will grant marginal advantage to whichever side it appears to favour, but in the long run, the UK might be doomed to slip into the US orbit.
In the midst of national desperation around Brexit, it is hard to see the UK wrestling giants. The need for a trade deal with the US may send the country scurrying into Trump’s embrace, and maybe forced to take on his values too.
The tanker row showed that the UK still has some cards to play. By ignoring John Bolton, London proved to be central to maintaining peace in the Gulf.
Now, the UK needs to stop being the fiddle others play.