The Iran plane crash could be an opportunity for diplomatic thaw - but not with Boris Johnson at the helm
By indirectly joining Trump’s ”maximum pressure” campaign, the UK prime minister will give Donald Trump a bigger mandate
The shooting down of a Ukranian civilian jet near Tehran last week shows nothing has changed in how the US and Iran approach their relationship since 1988. Back then the USS Vincennes shot down the Iran Air Flight 655, also by mistake, killing 290 innocent passengers, mostly Iranians.
The accident took Iran’s relations with the US to a new low. But it facilitated the first face-to-face negotiations since the 1979 Islamic revolution. That ended in 1996 with a 132 million dollars settlement the US had to pay. This latest plane crash is a human disaster, but it has the potential for Iran to resume talks with the US.
In the middle of a crisis, there is always an opportunity. In the talks that will follow over the financial settlement, the accountability process, and the possible security council resolution against Iran’s horrific mistake which killed 176 innocent victims, there should be a real chance for diplomacy.
On Thursday, the foreign ministers of the victims’ respective nations will meet in London to discuss legal action against Iran. This puts the UK in an ideal position to lead on the investigation. London could use the momentum created by this terrible accident and the killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani to shake up the deeply intense standoff between Iran and the US.
To do so, the UK is in urgent need of true leadership. But Boris Johnson’s policy on Iran doesn’t look promising.
The British foreign secretary was right to urge Iran to "engage in diplomacy and chart a peaceful way forward". But does he or anyone in Boris Johnson’s government have a clear vision for the diplomatic engagement he is rightly pushing for? Does the foreign secretary understand that any diplomatic course is a two-way street that needs both parties to give concessions?
In his piece for The Independent over the weekend, the Lib Dems’ acting leader Ed Davey pleasantly asserted the Iran crisis is Mr Johnson’s biggest foreign policy test. No, Mr Davey, it is not a test anymore. The result is out, and it is, unsurprisingly, yet another big failure.
Mr Johnson’s response to the news of killing Soleimani was lazy. He refused to cut short his New Year holiday in Mustique and get back to lead from the front, not from the back. His approach of unequivocal support for Trump’s abrupt decisions and spur-of-the-moment policies revealed his expected long shot servitude towards Trump and his foreign policy puerility.
This dire handling of the crisis provoked Iran’s hardliners and got the UK ambassador Rob Macaire arrested, and the embassy surrounded by pro-regime protesters, some of them in uniform. This was indeed a “flagrant violation of international law", as Dominic Raab said. But we all know how little respect Iran’s fanatic Ayatollahs have for international law.
Shooting down an airliner is always a terrible violation of International Law, even if it happens by mistake. But arresting Macaire was not unintentional. Foreign ambassadors usually move around with their guards and in diplomatic motorcades. Whoever stopped the UK ambassador knew exactly who he was and what he was doing – Macaire claims he was attending a vigil for the plane crash victims not an anti-government protest as Iran alleges.
Iran simply wanted to send a message to the UK government that Mr Johnson’s complete and utter subordination to Trump will help make the future look grim in the Middle East. Iran’s extremists targeted the symbol of the very diplomacy Raab wants Iran to “engage in”.
By indirectly joining Trump’s ”maximum pressure” campaign, Johnson will give Trump a bigger mandate to immerse deeper in his illusions over Iran. If he survives the impeachment saga and gets re-elected, Trump will see it as another approval for his legacy. Old friend Johnson may be the only one who can put the brakes on Trump’s volatile Middle East approach.
Think about this - when exactly was the economic pressure alone ever successful to force a nation state to the negotiations table?
Nasser had proved in the 1950s and 1960s that war is the only way to break a Mexican standoff – Israel did this by launching the disastrous 1967 six days war, placing East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights under Israeli occupation. Until now the region is suffering the fallout from this unlawful action. The US has repeatedly failed to force Cuba out of the Soviet orbit, and yet it didn’t come near a real thaw with it.
Under Saddam Hussein, many of the Iraqi people had to live on tree leaves to survive, and many more died or left the country because they had no other choice but to do so. Years of the hard embargo the US and its allies imposed on the country brought the nation to its knees but failed to bring down the regime. All-out war was the answer. The US ended up dragging the UK to help invade and occupy Iraq, and together they had destroyed the very lasting order in the region.
Does any of that sound like a good plan? Does the US want to go down the same path and expect different outcomes? Is “maximum pressure” still the magic wand that will bring about change in Iran? The answer is a big “no”.
The real test awaiting the prime minister is how to form a partnership with Trump that ends this deadly confrontation with Iran. The downing of the Ukranian passenger jet could be an opportunity to incrementally expand the scope of the agenda and number of participants to include the US, and maybe Russia and China too.
Reaching a settlement over the stricken plane will prove that diplomacy still works and there must be a great potential for more.