Boris Johnson's first foreign policy test will be avoiding stumbling the UK into a broader confrontation with Iran.
As Boris Johnson becomes UK prime minister, his first foreign policy test is not Brexit but managing an unexpected crisis with Iran. The Iranian seizure of a UK-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz – coming days after the Royal Marines helped Gibraltar detain an Iranian oil tanker allegedly bound for Syria – has thrust the relationship between London and Tehran into deep turmoil. This comes at a highly sensitive time, with the United Kingdom, together with France and Germany, desperately trying to salvage the Iranian nuclear deal.
A fight with Iran is probably the last thing Johnson wanted as his prime ministerial baptism of fire. It is critical that he now step up to avert a scenario in which the UK stumbles into a wider confrontation in the Middle East. Against the backdrop of ongoing Brexit uncertainties, Johnson should see this as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership at home while highlighting the value of a diplomatically engaged UK to its European partners and the US.
Iran’s attacks on ships, ongoing activities across the region, suspension of full compliance with the nuclear deal, and imprisonment of dual nationals such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe have drawn condemnation from governments across Europe. However, as Johnson has acknowledged, military conflict with Iran will not resolve any of these issues – and would only risk making matters worse.
Iran’s recent activities in the Strait of Hormuz have not occurred in a vacuum. They came as a direct result of the United States’ decision to ramp up its campaign of maximum pressure on Iran. London has justified the seizure of the Iranian tanker on the basis that it was breaching EU sanctions on Syria. Tehran believes that the US government orchestrated the ship’s detention and has labelled the UK’s conduct as piracy.
If, amid these tensions, it jumps on board with the US strategy to corner Iran, the UK is likely to accelerate the full collapse of the nuclear deal and heighten the risk of another Middle Eastern war –neither of which is in the UK’s interest. Instead of taking this disastrous path, Johnson must prioritise exhaustive diplomacy. As a first step, the prime minister should immediately look to settle the dispute over the two seized tankers.
The UK will not want to enter into swap negotiations with Iran, comparing its legal seizure to Iranian “piracy”, but Johnson should initiate overlapping talks aimed at freeing the two ships. This should begin with the urgent release of crews on both sides. As the UK has already suggested, the Iranian ship could be released with a guarantee that the oil it is carrying will not go to Syria, providing everyone with a face-saving way out.
Tehran has an interest in a diplomatic cool-down, too. It will not benefit Iran to push UK policy closer to that of the Trump administration. As a party to the nuclear deal, the UK is undertaking civil nuclear cooperation with Iran that leaders in Tehran want to sustain. The appointment of a new UK prime minister presents Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with a chance to persuade the wider Iranian leadership to test a diplomatic reset with the UK through goodwill gestures, such as releasing Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Given US President Donald Trump’s support for him, Johnson could play a useful role mediating between Washington and Tehran.
The UK should combine this with an initiative designed to secure the safe passage of commercial shipping through the Strait of Hormuz. Some European countries have reportedly welcomed such a move. Johnson should back a European-led naval operation that protects international tankers there. He should coordinate this effort with Washington without becoming tied to a US-led plan, which Trump’s confrontational approach towards Iran could compromise. The European initiative could also improve Johnson’s relationship with his European counterparts ahead of contentious Brexit negotiations.
The UK and its European partners should also convene a maritime security conference at the forthcoming UN General Assembly – possibly in cooperation with Oman, one of the few neutral states in the Middle East. Other Gulf Arab states – which are wary of not only the Iranian challenge but also US positioning, as they fear that they will pay a high price for further escalation – could support the undertaking. The UK could also reach out to China, which has a strong interest in guaranteeing the safe passage of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.
Given the risk that a growing military presence in politically charged waterways could provoke unintended escalation, European governments should also invite Iran to this conference. The meeting could lay the groundwork for a much-needed sustainable maritime security architecture in the Gulf.
Simultaneously, there is an urgent need to focus on resolving a bigger issue hanging over the Middle East: the risk of a sudden collapse into region-wide conflict. In addressing this threat, Johnson should work with French President Emmanuel Macron – who has maintained a focused diplomatic push towards regional de-escalation. Both Washington and Tehran are now using heightened aggression to find a pathway to new negotiations. Europe should look to mediate between them, aiming to ease tensions without either party losing face.
In this, Johnson needs to use his personal relationship with Trump. The US president is clearly stuck, looking for a track towards negotiations with Iranian leaders. The prime minister should suggest to Trump that the UK and its European allies help begin direct negotiations between Tehran and Washington – if the US eases restrictions on Iranian oil exports for a set period, to give renewed diplomacy a chance. In exchange, Europeans would need to convince Tehran to reverse its non-compliance with the nuclear deal and to begin talks with Washington.
If this effort fails, the UK should make the case that it is in Iran’s strategic interest to at least hold tight until 2021 – when a new US president could come to power and change course on Iran policy. Continued Iranian escalation will inevitably end any European effort to safeguard Iran’s position on the nuclear issue. The return of EU and UN sanctions on Iran will make life even harder for the country, further undermining its leverage in any talks with the US.
Europe and the US face immense problems with Iran that they must resolve. But, so long as the prospect of conflict with Iran looms, there is little chance of progress on these wider issues. Johnson’s ascent to power provides an opportunity for the UK to inject new momentum into efforts to chart a better path forward.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.