The Gulf standoff with Iran is more proof that the dream of ‘Global Britain’ has shrunk before it has even begun
At a time when we need them most, bilateral disagreements and conflicts of interest with a number of nations have left us with very few friends. The soon-to-be prime minister has a lot of pieces to pick up, at home as abroad
Now you could argue that a small and successful show of military might is just the sort of distraction the UK government is in need of at a time when it is beleaguered on so many fronts. Less so, I would imagine, a naval clash with Iran in or near disputed waters in the Gulf, and there are many questions hanging over what exactly happened on 10 July.
One question might be why the first news of a stand-off between a British frigate in defence of an Isle-of-Man flagged commercial tanker and three (scaled back from the initial five) Iranian gunboats came not from the UK’s own authorities, but from the United States (which, incidentally, had one of its surveillance aircrafts overhead).
Another might be where exactly the reported confrontation took place: was the tanker, British Heritage, in international, or disputed, waters? The UK Ministry of Defence is quite clear that the frigate, HMS Montrose, was in international waters “at all times”, but it declined to comment on the location of the tanker.
A third might concern Iran’s intentions. Tehran says it was not trying to retaliate against the UK for the recent seizure of a sanctions-busting Iranian tanker by Gibraltar, and its denial could be cover for a failed operation. Equally, Iran could have just been tweaking the tail of a US ally at a time of heightened tension.
But the biggest question might be why UK ships in the Gulf seem suddenly vulnerable. And here there could be some answers. Because the UK is seen as a junior partner of the United States and the US is at loggerheads with Iran. Because an Iranian tanker was captured and taken to the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar (reportedly on the orders, initially, not of the EU, but of the United States). And because there are other irritants in UK-Iran relations, not least the imprisonment of the dual national, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and outstanding debts owed by the UK to Iran – whose payment might or might not unlock Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s prison cell.
But there is another reason, too. Earlier this week, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, ridiculed the UK for sending its warships to shadow its tankers in the Gulf, describing it as “scared” and “hopeless”. Bravado this may be, but Iran would not be alone in regarding the UK as almost uniquely vulnerable and weak. A recurrent theme of official British rhetoric about Russia over the past five years has been to dismiss it as isolated and without allies. How many friends does London have right now?
Just cast your eyes around the world and consider how the UK might look from the perspective of others. We have messed up our relations with the European Union big time. Why should the EU 27 feel any obligation whatsoever to use their collective economic and diplomatic clout to save us from ourselves? Not only was the Brexit vote a statement of separateness, but the government’s inability over three years to conclude the divorce has diminished our reputation for competence in the political and diplomatic arena. We might have no written constitution, but the country ran itself reasonably smoothly without one. That can no longer be said.
And the change can be felt. The UK has been more hesitant than the rest of the EU in challenging Washington’s disavowal of the Iran nuclear agreement. Who in the EU is treating Gibraltar’s sequestration of the Iranian oil tanker as a bloc achievement? No one. It is more of an embarrassment, which could hamper the EU’s efforts to preserve what can be preserved of the nuclear agreement, and it was specifically opposed by Spain – pointing to the sort of aggravation that can be expected when and if Brexit is complete.
Turn then to China – and Hong Kong. As with previous waves of protest, there are those in the former colony who have appealed for UK support in the apparent belief that London can still influence what happens. But the UK is no longer as free as it was even in the rhetoric department. If it shouts too loudly about treaty obligations and the legitimate desire of Hong Kong’s people for democracy and the rule of their own law, it will not only be scorned by younger Hongkongers more aware of the realities, but risk being frozen out by China at the very time when the UK sees increasing trade with the world’s largest economy is a prime imperative.
Nor has the discussion over the Chinese telecoms conglomerate Huawei and the extent to which it already has, and will still, penetrate the UK economy gone away. It is currently quiescent, but the potential conflict between considerations of trade and national security, with the UK’s prized membership of the “Five Eyes” intelligence grouping possibly at stake, could flare up again at any moment.
If China presents dilemmas for a post-Brexit UK, could we find a new friend in Russia? In many ways, a rapprochement with Russia would make sense, and it is possible to detect very small steps in that direction. Theresa May’s obvious distaste during her G20 summit handshake with Vladimir Putin was largely theatre. Any hope of a serious improvement in relations, however, has to be tempered by a recognition of the low point from which we start – with the shadows of the Litvinenko and Salisbury poisonings, well-funded hysteria about “disinformation” and the influence of exiled Putin foes still in the ascendant. Any reassessment is likely to be long in coming, if it happens at all.
And so to the United States. We could always rely on the “special relationship”, could we not? And there were those who saw it as our fail-safe refuge post-Brexit. Occasional misunderstandings could be banished instantly by a pageantry-stuffed state visit. Maybe once they could. But the spectacular meltdown of relations over Sir Kim Darroch’s leaked cables has exposed not only the fragility, but the real imbalance, in a relationship that now looks “special” in a rather different way. A new prime minister and a new ambassador more to the current US president’s liking may patch things up for a while, but the vast gap in power has been exposed. A relationship of equals this is not.
Nor can any of the quarrels and potential quarrels I have outlined be blamed on your standard geopolitical tensions between blocs. From Gibraltar to Iran, to Hong Kong, to China, to Five Eyes, to Moscow and Washington, these are largely bilateral disagreements and conflicts of interest that leave the UK, in practice, with very few friends. At a time when, it could be argued, we need them most.
There was a time when Brexit was supposed to usher in “Global Britain”, as the UK, liberated from EU constraints, reestablished ties with past friends and acquaintances around the world. With much of the Foreign Office already unhappy about the UK abandoning its 50-year European project and now furious over Boris Johnson’s lack of support for our former ambassador in Washington, the new prime minister has a lot of pieces to pick up, at home as abroad. It will take a lot more than being best mates with Donald Trump for the UK to restore anything its pre-referendum standing on the international map.