Johnson’s Iran Dilemma: Upping the Pressure with US or De-Escalation with EU

Written by | Friday, August 2nd, 2019

The new government in the UK may miss the opportunity to “recalibrate” tense relations with Iran amid the standoff over seized oil tankers. There is a concern among experts that Boris Johnson, the new British Prime Minster, will fall in behind US President Donald Trump’s hostile stance towards Tehran, instead of demonstrating diplomatic prowess by forging an influential position as a broker following its withdrawal from the European Union. In the meantime, tensions are rising in the Middle East, and particularly in the Strait of Hormuz, after the UK dispatched a second warship to protect British vessels and Tehran rejected plans for a European naval mission.


Iran’s response in the tanker standoff is widely seen as part of a pushback against Trump’s unilateral decision to ditch the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal and employ a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against Tehran. “Trump is clearly stuck on the Iranian issue and Johnson could make himself useful by offering a way out,” says Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, adding that “my sense at the moment is that Johnson is doubling down on a pseudo-populist ‘UK first’ approach that is going to create tensions with the EU and provide every incentive for him to align himself very closely with Trump.”


While both Iran and the US are “misreading” each other, says Sanam Vakil, senior research fellow at the London-based Chatham House think-tank, Tehran understands the context in which London finds itself as it reassesses its foreign policy priorities because of Brexit, and is seeking to appeal to Johnson’s “higher ambitions”. To that end, a key indicator will be how Johnson reads and responds to signals coming from Tehran. Johnson is thus now faced with a choice of falling in behind Trump – with whom he wishes to quickly agree upon a post-Brexit trade deal – or living up to the Brexit vision he has presented in public of a reinvigorated “global Britain”. “My strong sense is that he will go for the latter, says Barnes-Dacey, adding that „right now he is not looking to build ties with Europeans.“

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