Boris Johnson could hardly have chosen a more inauspicious moment to take over the reins in London with Whitehall in the death throes of a Prime Minister, the seemingly inevitable surge to a “no deal” Brexit plus the disrobing of Britannia by the Iranians and the likely accelerated pace of Beijing’s control over Hong Kong which inevitably will dog UK:China relations for some years ahead. All of which will be confused by President Trump’s graceless embrace which not only claimed Johnson as his acolyte but deliberately emphasised that he was his “man”! As Johnson himself noted, he will certainly need a better mojo than DUD but will he regret Americanising it into DUDE?
Brexit dominated the Conservative Party’s election of Johnson and only time will tell how successful he will be in “unifying” the seriously fractured party and renegotiating a deal with the EU in time for the October exit. But both Iran and Hong Kong will also be firmly on the agenda of the Johnson Cabinet when it meets in a day or so’s time. Both are urgent and present daunting challenges for the UK.
How the British allowed themselves to become euchred by the Iranian tanker in Gibraltar (the Grace) deserves an extremely thorough analysis. Surely in a country of the UK’s maturity, any policy consideration of a decision of this magnitude to seize a large Iranian oil tanker would have canvassed the UK’s capability to manage likely Iranian responses. The background to the decision remains murky. The Spanish have maintained from the outset that the seizure was made in territorial waters contested between the UK (Gibraltar) and Spain and that they had also been provided tracking intelligence on it by the US. There even remains some uncertainty about who in the British Government authorised the seizure – perhaps not all that surprising given the shambles in Whitehall for some time! What is clear is that the US (probably National Security Adviser Bolton who has had main carriage of the US:Iran conflict) pressured the UK into taking the action. The flimsy cover was to be that the tanker’s actions would be breaking EU sanctions against Syria when it is clear it was in support of US sanctions against Iran!
The likely consequences would have been strikingly obvious to the Foreign Office at least – an Iranian retaliatory strike on a British tanker in the Gulf or the Straits of Hormuz where there are nothing like enough British naval assets to offer appropriate protection. The Royal Navy (RN) no longer has the capacity to “rule the waves” around the world. The RN still has not recovered from a significant budget cut in 2010 which saw its numbers severely reduced – especially at its most experienced levels – and its recruitment inadequate. As the First Sea Lord commented in March this year,“ we are (now) through with relegating frigates and destroyers to training vessels due to a shortage of sailors”! This comes on top of a major problem the RN had with its 6 new destroyers whose engines could not operate in the warm waters of the Gulf and had to be totally replaced at enormous cost. This in turn delayed the major frigate program. There have also been significant delays with the aircraft carriers and Dreadnought nuclear submarines. As the Iranians have been quick to point out, the RN would have advised that one – or even a few RN ships – in the Gulf /Straits with its 1500 kms of Iranian coastline would be “sitting ducks” to the impressive Iranian land and sea missile systems. They would be without the requisite substantial air and counter-measures cover – which Britain no longer has anywhere near that area. Even if the RN had a carrier available it would need escorting ships for its protection – which is why the US Navy is very cautious about deploying its carriers and larger ships inside the Straits and Gulf.
All the above would have been even more perplexing for the British who have been trying so desperately to avoid being dragged into a US led coalition against Iran as they and their EU colleagues try to salvage the JCPOA. There is the abject picture now of a leaderless British government going around cap in hand to its (soon no longer to be) EU mates trying to mount a motley European (not NATO) coalition of ships to protect sea traffic in the Gulf and Straits. While it might convince a few EU countries to join there will need to be an enormous amount of work quickly to establish multi-flagged command and control structures, intelligence coordination, logistics etc which are to be maintained quite separately to the US and the coalition it is still seeking to create. Even sorting out the operations of two coalitions in the same area would present mind-boggling challenges. And that is without the many foreign ships in the area who do not fly the flags of the coalition members. Principal among the latter would be the many Chinese tankers involved for which China and Iran have recently held their own ship protection exercises near the Straits.
Essentially Johnson will be left three choices – none easy:
· Continue the efforts of former Foreign Secretary Hunt to try to resolve the issue through diplomatic channels which the Iranians have argued that they favour. But this inevitably would depend on finding a face-saving solution which would allow the release of the Grace and its cargo such as a guarantee that the cargo would not be sent to a Syrian port. Given the US sanctions it would not be easy to find an alternative destination and Trump would be most unlikely to agree to its release. This would leave Johnson with his first big test of managing his self-declared patron.
· Proceed with plans for a new non-US led naval coalition comprising several EU members (while Britain is still in the EU!) which is likely to take a lot more time, not be very effective and risk widening the Iranian list of demons with all the concomitant security threats to all members. This would add to the difficulties of keeping Iran in the JCPOA. It also would be unlikely to receive the blessing of the White House.
· Drop the previous British opposition and join the US led coalition, give up attempts to keep the JCPOA alive and run the clear risk of being dragged into a much wider military conflict with Iran. And gain a label for Johnson for pandering to Trump with whatever domestic damage in the UK that may incite.
Apart from the vexing issues this will create (probably has done already?) for Australia it is also a salutary reminder of how little value we should accord to the recent British breast thumping about expanding their security influence in the South Pacific – or even the South China Sea. This comes with the gloomy signs that the death knell of Hong Kong as an international hub seems to be coming earlier than expected and the inevitable strains which this will place on UK:China relations for some years to come as the UK seeks to protect the 2047 agreement and any last vestiges of British “influence” there.
Mack Williams Former Senior Australian Ambassador and Royal College of Defence Studies