Tensions in the Persian Gulf with Iran have not shown any signs of abating with the United States and now the United Kingdom, which saw a new leader, Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party, take over this week, both bracing themselves and issuing new measures to combat the aggression. Still, questions remain over whether or not U.S. allies in Europe will stand up to an increasingly provocative Tehran.
The most recent provocations began late last week when Iran announced that it had seized a British tanker. Following the seizure, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani offered a deal to swap the British tanker for its own tanker being held in Gibraltar, which was seized by the United Kingdom on suspicion that it was delivering oil to Syria in violation of current sanctions.
In response to Iran’s continued threat in the Gulf, both American and Britain announced potentially significant moves to counter the threat.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on other nations to join a maritime force to guard oil tankers sailing through the Strait of Hormuz.
“I am confident that we will all form a collective defence,” he told conservative radio host Ben Shapiro. “The United States is calling it our maritime security initiative, and we have asked countries from all across the world to participate in that to assist in the defence of the waterways through the Gulf and through the Straits of Hormuz.”
The Strait of Hormuz lies between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
At the same time, the U.K. Royal Navy announced that it will now accompany British oil tankers in the region. Newly appointed U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has already said that the United States will escort American-flagged ships.
Change the rules of engagement
Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told JNS that Iran’s strategy here is “practising brinkmanship, threatening to stop the energy flow from the Gulf.”
Adding to this, Iran also recently breached the 2015 nuclear deal (officially Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) a second time and brought its low-enriched uranium limit over the agreed threshold—from 3.7 per cent to about 4.5 per cent.
Iran is trying to “free itself from the limits imposed by the JCPOA,” said Inbar, adding that the Europeans “are unlikely to say or do something. It is Trump who must react.”
He warned that if Trump focuses only on the economic arena, the world “will end up with an Iran very close to the bomb.”
And if it reaches that dangerous point, Inbar said it is then that Israel “will have to decide what to do.”
A Message to the Europeans
Emily Landau, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told JNS that she views Iran’s provocations in the Gulf in past several months and its violations of the nuclear deal “as a message to the Europeans.”
She said that while Iran’s steps so far have been “measured,” it’s a message meant to jolt the Europeans, as well as an effort to get sanctions off Iran’s back. “This is Iran’s main goal,” she said.
“The European response is very important here, and unfortunately, what we’ve heard so far from the Europeans—despite the fact there was initially harsher rhetoric regarding the consequences if Iran breached the JCPOA—once Iran actually did breach it, the reaction was not significant,” explained Landau.
In political terms, Iran’s moves are indeed significant, as are Europe’s reactions.
Landau agreed with Inbar that the Europeans “mainly want to play this down and not make a big deal about it.”
Nevertheless, Tehran sees its strategy is working, and as such, will most likely take it another step further. Europe needs to stand together with the Americans with the understanding that Iran is not going to negotiate a better deal unless it is pressured into doing so.
Landau pointed out that that the Obama administration was under the illusion that after the JCPOA was achieved, talks could move to other issues, such as ballistic missiles.
“This was nonsense,” she said. “There was no basis for thinking Iran would ever do that if there was no longer any pressure.”
She insisted that “Iran cannot get the message that these [provocative] steps are acceptable.”
Pointing to the subterfuge and deceitful games Iran is playing, Landau warned that America must stand firm and “not relent.” She said the Trump administration needs to understand “how the Iranians play this game, how they twist things, making it seem there are concessions when there are absolutely no concessions at all.”
Landau warned that “this is the kind of bargaining stance that the U.S. cannot accept; it cannot fall for the kinds of games that the Iranians are playing,” and it must think of strategies to effectively counter them.
“Overall”, Landau said, “things are moving in a non-linear, messy way to the negotiations, but it is going to be a really tough bargain, and I hope the Americans are up to it.”