Tehran’s Appears Confident in British Restraint, but UK Strategy Remains Uncertain

Tehran’s Appears Confident in British Restraint, but UK Strategy Remains Uncertain

Questions swirled on Tuesday about British foreign policy regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran. Such questions have been prevalent ever since Boris Johnson was installed as the UK’s new Prime Minister in late July. And since then, his government has faced pressure from two sides: those advocating for a hardline strategy in line with the White House’s “maximum pressure,” and those who favor a conciliatory approach that is more in line with the status quo.

Johnson has been extensively compared to US President Donald Trump, and some British lawmakers have even gone so far as to say that he was considering withdrawing the UK from 2015 Iran nuclear deal, as Trump did for the United States last year. This prospect was arguably strengthened on Tuesday at the conclusion of a three-day visit to London by the White House National Security Advisor. John Bolton expressly stated that the administration expects its British counterpart to declare the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action dead, although he conceded that this declaration was not expected imminently.

On the other hand, Tuesday was also marked by public statements from Iranian officials expressing confidence in the potential for a resolution to maritime disputes involving Iran and the UK. On July 4, British Royal Marines seized a supertanker, the Grace 1, near Gibraltar after determining that it was carrying Iranian oil to Syria, in violation of European Union sanctions on the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The Iranian oil itself is under universal sanction by the US, following the expiration of waivers in May, but the EU is not participating in those sanctions. Some commentators have alleged that the seizure was carried out at the request of the Trump administration, signaling greater British alignment with the maximum pressure strategy, but the UK has denied this.

In any event, Iranian officials and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were quick to threaten retaliation for the Grace 1 seizure, and the IRGC followed through on this threat two weeks after the initial incident, taking custody of the Stena Impero, a British-flagged tanker. The Iranians ultimately settled on an explanation for the seizure which involved the Impero violating regulations as it transited the Strait of Hormuz. But the ship’s operator contradicted this narrative, which was also undermined by the preexisting threats of retaliation and subsequent suggestions by Iranian officials that one vessel might be traded for the other.

This tacit offer was rejected in July by British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who emphasized that the seizure of the Grace 1 was a lawful action enforcing EU sanctions, while the Impero was captured as an illegal act of political retaliation. Nonetheless, the government’s commitment to this position was called into question after Johnson assumed the office of Prime Minister. At that time, his father granted an interview with Iran’s English-language propaganda network Press TV, in which he suggested that Johnson would be open to the trade and described the ship-for-ship swap as an “easy peazy” resolution to the crisis.

The new Prime Minister’s actual position on this matter has not come entirely clear since that interview was broadcast, and Iranian officials have apparently taken the elder Johnson’s words so much to heart that some expect the Impero to be released imminently. According to Jalil Eslami, the deputy head of Iran's Ports and Maritime Organization, this expectation also relates to the recent “exchange of some documents,” although he gave no indication of what was supposedly contained in these documents. Meanwhile, authorities in Gibraltar, where the Grace 1 is being held, rejected Iranian reports that it would be released.

Nevertheless, the state-run Fars News Agency also made reference to an “informal exchange to resolve the issue” of mutual access to international waterways. Fars even went further with its claims by implying that sanctions enforcement by the UK would no longer be an issue after the exchange. “According to government consultations, we expect to continue operating in the international waters with the Iranian flag in the very near future,” it said.

But whereas such statements profess confidence in Britain’s posture toward Iranian ships in the Mediterranean, it is not clear that this confidence also extends to expectations regarding British activities in Persian Gulf. Following the seizure of the Stena Impero, a British warship in the region began escorting British-flagged vessels through the Strait of Hormuz to guard against further Iranian provocations. And since then, a second British warship has joined in this mission and the UK itself has signed onto a US-led plan to form a security coalition in the area of the Persian Gulf.

In contrast to the latest statements regarding Iranian-British relations, Tehran has continued to rail against this plan, in an apparent effort to discourage the UK from following through on its pledge, or to discourage other Western nations from making their own. On Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif warned of the “risk of combustion” stemming from the prospective presence of foreign naval forces in the region. He went on to suggest that a guarantee of long-term peace and maritime security can only be achieved if the US stops its “destabilizing behavior.”

Zarif no doubt meant for this phrase to refer to the emerging US coalition, dubbed Operational Sentinel, as well as to the sanctions that Iran’s Foreign Ministry has repeatedly referred to as “economic terrorism.” But in order to assign primary responsibility to the US for regional instability, Zarif has had to overlook much more blatant instances of provocation from within his own ranks. As just one example, the head of IRGC naval forces, Rear Admiral Alireza Tangsiri, declared in a television interview on Sunday that Iranian authorities can seize “any ship, any time,” even if those ships are being shadowed by foreign navies.

Such remarks stand alongside a general military buildup and outpouring of militarist rhetoric that is expressly designed to portray the Islamic Republic as being prepared to stand toe-to-toe against superior Western forces in the event that escalating tensions lead to direct conflict.

Last week, the regime boasted about the production of three new precision missiles, and Defense Minister Amir Hatami explicitly connected those weapons to the notion of an Iranian response to “viciousness and conspiracies” emanating from the US. Days later, Tehran announced the unveiling of an upgraded, domestically-produced radar defense system, which it described as countering the effects of sanctions which had previously prevented the maintenance of similar systems with foreign-made parts. And on Tuesday, Press TV lauded two new military vehicles as part of a “diversified defense arsenal,” despite “four decades of sanctions imposed by Washington.”

In this last instance, the state media outlet also sought to argue against the effectiveness of US sanctions in general, asserting without evidence that the involvement of the Defense Ministry in Iran’s auto industry would make the country “able to produce its own cars on par with renowned international brands.”

The military vehicles showcased in the report are little more than ordinary consumer automobiles with added armaments. And although Press TV insisted that the vehicles are “mine-resistant and ambush-protected” and have been tested for their ability to conquer “undulating terrains” and “man-made roadblocks,” the Islamic Republic has a long history of making purely superficial changes to outmoded equipment in an effort to pass it off as state-of-the-art domestically produced military resources.
Realistically, such displays are unlikely to intimidate the UK or other Western governments into adopting more cautious strategies. But for domestic and some regional audiences, those same displays serve to supplement the regime’s official narratives concerning the victories it has supposedly already won against Western and Arab adversaries.

At the same time that Iranian media was bragging about a favorable resolution to the tanker crisis which had not been concluded yet, it was also praising the IRGC and the theocratic regime for supposedly forcing the retreat of regional rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. On Tuesday, Fars News vaguely cited one Arabic language newspaper report in order to advance the claim that “Saudi Arabia has started the policy of a quiet retreat.”

On the same day that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei used Iranian state media to call for additional support for the Houthi movement in Yemen, Fars asserted that the longstanding IRGC contribution to the Iranian-Saudi proxy war in that country had been a major contributing factor in the Saudi’s supposed decision to revise their Iran policy.

The same report also claimed that Iran’s ongoing confrontations with American and British ships in the Persian Gulf had prompted “the world's recognition of Iran as a regional power.”

While Fars offered little other than speculation as support for its claim about a softening Saudi posture, it did correctly note that the United Arab Emirates “has started withdrawing its forces from Yemen.” This had been corroborated in advance by a Washington Post report on Monday, which also pointed to a recent visit to Tehran by a UAE delegation tasked with discussing maritime security, and to the UAE’s refusal to follow Iran’s other adversaries in publicly blaming it for attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman in June.

But while the UAE’s growing hesitancy prompted Theodore Karasik of the Washington-based Gulf State Analytics to suggest that the Arab nation may be the “weak link in the Trump policy of maximum pressure,” it would be difficult to conclude from this development that Iran is justified in expressing confidence about the general failure of that policy.

Many other factors point to growing alignment in favor of that policy, even by countries that have endeavored to sit on the fence in the midst of growing tensions between Tehran and Washington.

It has lately been reported, for instance, that German exports to Iran were cut in half during the first half of this year, as European signatories to the Iran nuclear deal continue complying with US sanctions even as they work to preserve the agreement and encourage Tehran to resume its broken commitments. Meanwhile, rumors continue to swirl about the possibility of Boris Johnson’s government pursuing greater alignment with the US and ultimately pulling the UK out of the JCPOA – a move that would almost certainly kill it once and for all.

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