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Boris Johnson’s unforeseen crisis

Boris Johnson’s elevation to the UK premiership has plunged him deep into a new crisis, and how he approaches it will be deeply revealing about his strategy for Brexit, writes Peter McKenzie 

Boris Johnson’s tenure as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will be evaluated on one metric: his success in negotiating the UK’s exit from the European Union. As a result, as Johnson competed against nine other UK Conservative Party lawmakers for the top job in British politics, he faced intense scrutiny over his proposed strategy: a “do or die” commitment to leaving the EU on October 31, with or without a negotiated deal.

It is a testament both to the complexity of Brexit and to Johnson’s own political flexibility that the detail of this proposed approach is still shrouded in uncertainty. Johnson’s decision to stock his Cabinet with hardline Euroskeptics, and their urgent preparations for a potential ‘no-deal’, indicate he is still attached to that “do or die” approach. But some political observers have seized on past flashes of moderation, like Johnson’s victory speech to fellow Conservative MPs - where he asked rhetorically, “Wouldn’t it be great if we came out on 31st October?” - as an indication that his commitment to ‘no-deal’ (which would have devastating impacts on the British economy) is not guaranteed.

Moreover, especially if Johnson is hypothetically willing to take the UK out of Europe if no deal can be reached by the end of October, question marks still remains over whether Johnson will work to negotiate with the EU in good faith, and what level of compromise he would deem acceptable in order to get a deal.

We don’t need to wait to find out any longer. Johnson’s elevation to the premiership has plunged him deep into a new and unforeseen crisis: Iran’s recent seizure of British-flagged commercial vessels. It’s a dispute tightly interwoven with global geopolitics, and the manner in which Johnson approaches it will be deeply revealing about his strategy for Brexit.

To understand why, we have to rewind.

Diplomatic relations between the US and Iran have been increasingly strained since 2018, when President Donald Trump withdrew from a 2015 diplomatic agreement between Iran, the EU, China, Russia and the US where Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program and not pursue nuclear weapon capability. In return, the EU and US would reduce economic sanctions on Iran. Trump substituted this approach with a policy of ‘maximum pressure’, applying even more sanctions and crippling the Iranian economy. 

Johnson cannot sit on the sidelines now; he must start playing his cards. What he chooses to do will speak volumes about the future of Brexit, and of the United Kingdom. 

In early May 2019, John Bolton, the United States’ National Security Advisor, announced that an aircraft carrier strike group and Air Force bombers would be deployed to the Middle East, citing “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Iran. The announcement set off a chain reaction of confrontations. Four oil tankers (belonging to Saudi Arabia, Norway and the United Arab Emirates) were struck by Iranian saboteurs. The US then announced it would deploy an additional 1500 troops to the region in response to perceived Iranian threats. 

Later that month, two more tankers were struck by explosions, prompting another round of recriminations. On June 17, a further 1000 US troops were deployed as an explicit response to the tanker explosions. In the midst of the heightened tensions, Iran shot down a US military drone, prompting the US to plan a military strike, which was aborted at the last moment by President Trump.

In early July, Iran announced that it had violated the 2015 deal limiting its nuclear program, which both Iran and the EU had been complying with until then, despite the US’ withdrawal. Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, made the county's nuclear aspirations obvious by threatening, “Our [nuclear] enrichment rate is not going to be 3.67 percent anymore. It’s going to be as much as we want it to be.”

This was the EU’s worst nightmare. It believes that the 2015 deal is the best way of resolving Iran’s nuclear threat, and had been keeping the deal alive in the hope that Trump, or a new President, would re-enter it. European diplomats were quickly dispatched to try cool tensions between the US and Iran. They failed. 

Meanwhile, the US had informed first the Spanish, and then the British, that an Iranian oil tanker was attempting to violate sanctions which had been placed on Syria. The Spanish refused to intervene, but the British seized the vessel on July 4 - spurring Iranian officials to threaten to seize British ships in response. Iran followed through on July 19, seizing two British cargo ships - releasing one with a warning, but detaining the other. 

The news landed like a bombshell in the UK, where former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt were tussling in the final round of competition to be the UK’s next Prime Minister. 

Hunt was a staunch defender of the 2015 deal. That support meant he had been tolerant of Iran’s prior transgressions, stating after Iran’s announcement that it would violate the 2015 deal. “The UK remains committed to making the deal work and using all diplomatic tools to de-escalate regional tensions. I urge Iran to avoid any further steps away from [the deal] and come back into compliance.” 

Hunt had to take a harder line against Iran after its seizure of a British ship and decried the act as “state piracy”. But even then, his response was to reaffirm the UK’s support of the 2015 deal and to pursue the creation of a joint European maritime security force - a move which strongly aligned him with the UK’s traditional European partners. The proposed joint European maritime mission was akin to spitting in the face of the US, which had hoped the UK would join the US’ practically identical “coalition of navies” against Iran. 

Days later, Boris Johnson was elected as the Conservative Party’s new leader over Hunt, and therefore as the UK’s new Prime Minister. Johnson moved quickly to demote Hunt, offering him the lesser role of Defence Secretary - which Hunt refused, choosing instead not to serve in Johnson’s Cabinet at all. 

Suddenly Hunt’s moderate approach towards Iran and the European Union, and willingness to confront the US, was out the window. In its place was uncertainty; Johnson had remained quiet during Iran’s seizure of the British ship. Johnson announced that the Royal Navy would escort British ships through the Strait of Hormuz, but apart from that there is still little clarity as to what approach the UK will take with Iran. 

Johnson’s options are limited. The EU is desperate to tamp down tensions in the region and reengage the 2015 deal. The US is still committed to its aggressive policy of “maximum pressure”, which has only exacerbated tensions thus far. Johnson will need to choose between the two approaches. And the side he comes down on will be indicative of his wider strategy. 

He will spend much of the next few months shuttling between London and Brussels, intensely negotiating with European leaders and officials to find a tolerable deal with which Britain could leave the EU without incurring drastic economic losses. European leaders are already skeptical of Johnson. The negotiation process would be made significantly easier if Johnson remained aligned with the EU on the issue of Iran, presenting a united front against American aggression and urging the deescalation of tensions.

But much of Johnson’s rhetoric about Brexit has centred around the idea that the UK should not be overly concerned about a ‘no-deal’ Brexit from the EU, because Johnson would be able to negotiate a wide-ranging free trade deal with the US to offset the economic costs of such an exit. That would be practically impossible to achieve if Johnson remains aligned with the EU and rebuffs American efforts to tempt it into a coalition to apply “maximum pressure” to Iran. Trump, who is highly invested in the Iranian situation, would likely view it as a personal affront. 

In other words, Johnson must choose between cozying up to the EU on Iran in the hopes of securing a better Brexit deal or cozying up to the US to ensure a more comfortable ‘no-deal’ exit. Pursuing one means sacrificing the other. 

It’s a choice Johnson is already having to make. An extraordinary meeting of Iran, Germany, France, Russia, China and the UK took place on Sunday to discuss the 2015 nuclear deal, and the UK will have had to make its intentions clear during the high-level negotiations. 

Johnson cannot sit on the sidelines now; he must start playing his cards. What he chooses to do will speak volumes about the future of Brexit, and of the United Kingdom. 

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