AS tensions rise in the Gulf with talk of another “tanker war,” Foreign Editor David Pratt examines the extent to which Britain might foolishly be following in America’s wake over policy towards Iran.
IT is known as code alert level 3. As shipping security warnings go, it’s the highest level and has been described as equivalent to the UK’s domestic security classification of “critical” in which there is an imminent risk of an incident.
Over the past week, the level 3 warning was issued not for a likely incident here on our doorstep, but thousands of miles away in the Persian Gulf.
It is directed at the 15-30 large British-owned vessels that travel through the Gulf every day and is tantamount to saying avoid Iranian waters where possible.
Seemingly out of nowhere the UK has found itself embroiled in a crisis with Iran.
It is one that has an eerie echo of the so-called “Tanker War” that erupted in the late 1980s during the eight-year conflict between Iraq and Iran.
Back then, the tanker war involved American naval ships escorting reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers through the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz after Iranian mines damaged vessels in the region.
It culminated in a one-day naval battle between Washington and Tehran, and also saw America accidentally shoot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing 290 people.
That crisis all those years ago stands as a stark reminder of how one of the world’s crucial choke points for global energy supplies – the Strait of Hormuz – has the potential to spark a conflict with far reaching implications.
“We need to remember that some 30% of the world’s crude oil passes through the straits,” says Paolo d’Amico, the chairman of the oil tanker association Intertanko. “If the waters are becoming unsafe, the supply to the entire Western world could be at risk.”
So just what was the chain of events that led Britain to the volatile standoff with Iran in which it now finds itself?
The background was the recent seizure by British Royal Marines of an Iranian-owned tanker, Grace I, off Gibraltar on charges that it was breaking European sanctions imposed on the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Not surprisingly, the Iranians were none too pleased that their Syrian ally had been impacted by this first instance of a European state interdicting a tanker for Syria on the seas.
What followed were threats and counter-threats between Tehran and London culminating last Thursday in three Iranian naval boats briefly attempting to block passage of UK tanker the British Heritage which was under escort by a Royal Navy warship, HMS Montrose, in the Strait of Hormuz.
It was a tense moment, which passed without exchange of gunfire, but resulted in Britain announcing it will now deploy the destroyer HMS Duncan to a situation that is rapidly escalating and could so easily lead to open hostilities.
Against this backdrop of building tension, many analysts and diplomats warn, each small confrontation, like the encounter on Thursday, increases the risk of a more violent and deadly conflict.
“We are just about as close to a conflict without there being an actual armed conflict, so the tensions are very high,” said Jakob P Larsen, the head of maritime security for Bimco, the largest of the international shipping associations which represents about 60% of the world’s merchant fleet.
But how could a crisis that, in its initial sense, was primarily between the US and Iran, find Britain become so rapidly and heavily embroiled? Is it perhaps another sign, as some observers have suggested, that the UK Government is only too willing to increasingly dance to Washington’s political tune?
For its part Tehran remains convinced that the seizure of the Grace I off Gibraltar, setting in motion recent events, was an action undertaken by Britain on US instructions. ondon denies this, even if Foreign Office officials in the past have indicated the biggest factor in the decision was pressure from Washington.
Indeed, few take seriously Britain’s claim that they carried out such a provocative act solely because of a request from the Gibraltarian authorities and in order to enforce EU sanctions on Syria.
Even within the Tory government’s own ranks there were questions over the efficacy of the tanker’s seizure.
Lord David Howell, a former Conservative Cabinet minister and chairman of the Lords’ International Relations Committee, questioned the Government on whether it “was such a good idea to raid the Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar in the first place”.
He asked too whether the UK was not supposed to be on the same side of the Iranians on the question of nuclear proliferation and control?
“Can we have a firm assurance that we did this not just at the say-so of the US?” he insisted in the wake of the raid on the Grace I.
The Government stuck to its guns by insisting the operation was a unilateral decision.
But Tehran’s insistence of US influence being brought to bear was further strengthened when President Donald Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, tweeted that what happened was “excellent news”, adding: “America & our allies will continue to prevent regimes in Tehran & Damascus from profiting off this illicit trade.”
Bolton and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have long been identified as gunning for the Tehran regime as well as being vociferous opponents of the nuclear deal with Iran, a position many regard as being the real catalyst for the recent escalation in tensions in the region.
Speaking on the BBC, Nathalie Tocci, the special adviser to the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, put the UK decision in an even wider political context.
“The UK is feeling its own fragility and a fear of isolation as it tries to cut off its membership from the EU. There’s a line connecting the Iran story and the UK ambassador to the US,” observed Tocci.
She was, of course, referring to the recent story involving the resignation of Sir Kim Darroch, Britain’s ambassador to the US who quit his post under political pressure following the recent leak of diplomatic cables critical of Trump and his administration.
If Britain is willingly taking instructions from Washington over Iran, then many observers see it as a dangerous game that could lead the country on a path from which it might prove difficult to retreat.
“As in Iraq after 2003 and Afghanistan after 2006, Britain is becoming engaged in a conflict in which it is only a bit player, but must cope with the same dangers as the US,” pointed out veteran Middle East watcher Patrick Cockburn in The Independent this week.
“Britain is on the edge of becoming involved in a conflict in which it can only deploy limited forces, but it could become the target of Iranian retaliation for any US escalation of the conflict,” Cockburn added.
In short, the fear is that Britain is making itself a target without knowing the full extent of Trump’s intentions or the pernicious influence of those within his administration like Bolton and Pompeo who are itching to give Tehran a bloody nose.
Might the UK Government’s energies not be better served trying to salvage the Iran nuclear deal?
It is, after all, the Trump administration’s decision last year to repudiate this 2015 accord Iran reached with the US and other international powers that lies at the core of the broader confrontation with Iran at the moment.
The agreement called for Iran to suspend and dismantle most of its nuclear programme, which the US and its allies suspected, despite Iranian denials, might someday produce a nuclear weapon in exchange for relief from international economic sanctions.
Ever since Trump’s administration withdrew from the deal though, the remaining parties to the accord have made a worthwhile effort to salvage it.
Patient as Tehran has been, the US has only imposed more sanctions and Iran has been unable to secure an economic package that would offset such sanctions.
Rather than ratchet up tensions many diplomats and other observers say there is a strong case for the UK to work with its European partners towards preventing the deal’s full collapse, for as long as feasible.
“If Europe cannot deliver tangible measures to reverse Iran’s road map, it should attempt to freeze the nuclear escalation through an arrangement that locks in the current status quo, a ‘nuclear deal-lite’, for an extended period,” suggested Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior foreign policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in an article last week.
Any such steps would, however, require a higher degree of confrontation with Washington, something the UK Government on the Iran issue seems unprepared to risk right now.
It does, however, seem willing to risk an escalation in hostilities with Tehran, despite Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt insisting last month that he could not “envisage any situation where they (US) request or we agree to any moves to go to war.”
Unlikely as it might seem, it would be naive to discount the possibility of war breaking out with Iran given the high stakes right now in the Strait of Hormuz.
After the attacks last month on shipping there (which Iran denies), Trump ordered the deployment of about 1,500 additional US troops and Bolton warned Iran and its proxies that they “risk a very strong response” if they attacked US interests in the region.
Should that doomsday scenario unfold, few doubt war with Iran would be catastrophic in its impact.
Ask almost any military analyst and they will tell you that conflict with Iran would potentially be more calamitous than the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, bogged the US down in a costly and lengthy war, and helped spark the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group.
If the US launched an attack against Iran, it would also reverberate across the Middle East.
Iran has proxies throughout the region and is allied with militant groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. History has shown the sting that Iran is militarily capable of inflicting even in a limited conflict.
In April, a revised US Pentagon estimate newly released found Iranian proxy forces were responsible for 17% of all US service personnel deaths between 2003 and 2011, having supplied weaponry to Shi’ite militias fighting the US occupation in Iraq.
Meanwhile, the US death toll is in addition to the “thousands” of Iraqi troops and civilians killed in attacks by Iranian proxy forces during the same period.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions aside, the whole question of oil, of course, is also vital in this geopolitical standoff, just as it was during the tanker war of the 1980s.
Writing recently for the progressive news website Common Dreams, Michael Klare, senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association, outlined how one single principle has long guided US policy in the Middle East, one that is not often “openly acknowledged” but generally recognised.
“The United States alone must be the ultimate guarantor of unimpeded oil commerce in the Persian Gulf,” wrote Klare.
“Look closely and you can find this principle lurking in every fundamental statement of US policy related to that region and among the Washington elite more generally.”
Klare went on to note that “any Iranian move in the Strait of Hormuz that can be portrayed as a threat to the ‘free flow of commerce’ (that is, the oil trade) represents the most likely trigger for direct US military action”.
Along with US concerns over oil, the Trump administration has made destroying the Iranian nuclear deal a central part of its foreign policy. These two things combined is something Tehran cannot accept.
Right now, Iran is answering the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy by placing maximum pressure on Trump.
Each side seems to be operating on the assumption that mounting pressure will force the other side to blink. The danger, of course, is a miscalculation that produces a conflict even if neither side wants it.
For its part, the UK Government has allowed itself to become caught right in the middle of this rapidly-escalating feud.
Britain needs to ensure that it doesn’t obediently and foolishly follow in America’s wake over policy towards Iran, for in doing so it would be sailing into dangerous waters indeed.