0408 GMT July 24, 2019
Not for the first time, nor certainly the last, the Persian Gulf is a veritable tinderbox. The immediate reason for the increase in tensions is the Royal Marines’ seizure of an Iranian tanker that was allegedly en route to Syria, in violation of EU sanctions. Rather than defuse the situation, the Tory leadership contender and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt was quick to resort to saber-rattling and a reassertion of British militarism on the high seas. For some Iranians this reawakens bitter memories of the UK’s infamous oil blockade in the early 1950s, culminating in the overthrow of the popular prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq. The very same prime minister who dared to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, better known today as BP. In any case, with seized ships in the Mediterranean and trouble in the Strait of Hormuz there is a danger of missing the wood for the trees in explaining what has brought about this crisis.
Ultimately, it is that Donald Trump made it a central part of his foreign policy platform to destroy the Iranian nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It was a landmark non-proliferation agreement, and perhaps the signal foreign policy achievement of Barack Obama. The JCPOA was concluded in July 2015 after more than a decade-long impasse; an impasse that brought us to the brink of full-blown war on more than one occasion, and that involved cycles of brinkmanship that benefited no one, least of all a region still suffering the effects of imperial hubris in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya.
Almost from his first day in office Trump set about eroding the entire rationale for Iran’s signing up to the deal. He started by undermining civil aviation deals, which were a key sweetener of the JCPOA, as well as threatening foreign companies looking to invest in the country. At the same time he was applying various sanctions, even while the US continued to be a signatory. Since abandoning the deal in May 2018, the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy, an economic war by any other name, has mercilessly targeted the Iranian energy, civil aviation, military and banking sectors – including the country’s central bank. When the Trump administration’s special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, was asked whether food and medicines would be exempt, he nonchalantly replied that the responsibility for any shortages lay with the Iranians.
The nature of Trump’s endgame is anyone’s guess. He most likely has little idea himself, beyond an imagined red-carpet summit that will grab headlines and allow him to live down Obama’s success, while doing nothing to further the cause of non-proliferation or stability in the Middle East. Meanwhile, John Bolton, Trump’s notoriously belligerent national security adviser, with decades of hands-on experience in Washington’s halls of power, has never been shy about his ambition for a war with Iran and his commitment to regime change.
Since 2017, instead of responding to the constant goading of the Trump administration, the Iranian government has bided its time and continued to adhere to the parameters of the JCPOA. That was while it was seeing its economy contract as a result of US pressure, including against any country that dared to continue to purchase Iranian oil, its single most important source of revenue. Experts expect to see a further contraction of 6%, if not more, in 2019. Perhaps naively Iran believed that the European parties to the JCPOA could insulate the Iranian economy from an unremitting campaign to tighten the screws. But thus far, the European powers have proven impotent, despite the best efforts of the high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy, Federica Mogherini. As a result, Iran has, more than a year after the US withdrew, departed from certain of its obligations while abiding by paragraph 36 of the JCPOA. (Under Paragraph 36 Iran can wind down its commitments after exhausting various actions.)
Rather than cravenly follow the Trump administration, or mindlessly pander to bellicose elements within the Tory party membership as Hunt and Boris Johnson have been doing, the British government must return to the spirit of the JCPOA. It must see to it that the Iranian government isn’t pushed into a corner where it sees no other option than to haphazardly react to what is in effect a war on its very viability as a state. The deal was effective not only from a non-proliferation perspective. It also signified a new chapter and demonstrated that all sides could reach an accord based on reciprocity and the acknowledgment of one another’s sovereign rights. The fate of 80 million Iranians hangs in the balance, and we owe them more than to indulge the whims of a narcissist fixated on spiting his predecessor.
This article was first published in the Guardian on July 12.