Johnson will dramatically change the trajectory of Iran crisis
Elections have consequences. And the recent ascension to power of Boris Johnson as prime minister of the UK — following his comfortable defeat of former Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt in the Conservative leadership contest — has more than most. Surprisingly, these consequences extend beyond the myopic, obsessive state of Brexit to much larger foreign policy issues, including even the trajectory of the looming strategic crisis with Iran.
For, with the elevation of a decidedly more pro-US leader, the UK will decisively move away from its present diplomatic position as one of the EU-3 in the region (along with France and Germany) and, over time, gravitate to the more muscular position of Donald Trump’s America. Without the firm support for the Iranian nuclear deal that the tired, weak former government of Theresa May exhibited, the common strategic and diplomatic position of the EU-3 will tumble down like the house of cards that it is.
While the dramatic miscalculation that was Iran’s brazen seizure of the British tanker, the Stena Impero, grabs all the present headlines, in the long run the meaning of Prime Minister Johnson’s ascension to power will prove a more important fact in the ongoing crisis. Predictably, following the seizure, then-Foreign Secretary Hunt announced — in line with the May government’s defeatist, pro-EU stance — that the UK was proposing a joint “European Maritime Mission” to protect the EU-3’s shipping through the suddenly perilous Strait of Hormuz.
This amounted to the usual European fondness for gesture politics, rather than doing anything of substance. For, of the EU-3, only France and the UK actually have a functioning navy. Pacifist Germany, with defense spending only amounting to a pitiful 1.24 percent of the gross domestic product in 2018, long ago succumbed to the fatuous belief that international relations amounts to a debating society. Its holiday from history means only two of the vaunted EU-3 actually have a navy in place to carry out this dangerous mission.
Second, British shipping executives have wryly noted that Hunt’s plan, even if enthusiastically acted upon, might take as long as four months to be fully operational, which in the real world amounts to little help.
The new PM definitively sees the world far differently from the tired, discredited British establishment.
Dr. John C. Hulsman
But then, actually doing something to stop Iranian piracy on the high seas is not the point. Rather, the goal is to look as if something is being done while not working with the far more capable (and far more bellicose) Americans to actually safeguard Western shipping. The danger with such a European course of action is, of course, that it risks heightening the chances for open conflict and the definitive end of their precious Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, something which the EU-3 want to avoid at all costs.
But, in his long-term championing of the Anglosphere, Johnson definitively sees the world far differently from the tired, discredited British establishment, of which both May and Hunt are charter members. For Johnson, far from being a relic of a long ago past, a belief that the English-speaking peoples of the world still amount to a central British foreign policy bastion is a paramount foreign policy belief.
In terms of defense alliances, the US and the UK still dominate NATO, while the Australians, Indians and the US make up three members of the nascent “Quad,” which is designed to balance China. The “Five Eyes” of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand form the paramount intelligence-sharing grouping in the world.
Economically, India and the US are two of the fastest-growing major world economies. For the UK, America remains absolutely central to its economy. As a single country, the US is the largest export market for British goods. It is also the largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI), while the UK is the second-largest source of FDI for American firms. For all these hard-headed reasons, Johnson and other believers in the Anglosphere see it as the future, not the past.
As such, don’t look for Johnson to instinctively side with the EU-3 anymore. Instead, to further British interests in line with his Anglosphere beliefs, the PM will drift into the American orbit over a number of foreign policy issues, including Iran.
In the short run, this may actually mean a toning down of the immediate crisis, which actually suits both the American and British administrations. Wholly focusing on delivering Brexit in only 99 days, Johnson wants the immediate crisis to go away and may well offer a swap of the earlier captured Grace 1 Iranian tanker for the Stena Impero. Paradoxically, this would suit Trump to the ground, as he remains determined to live up to the promise he made to his political base to avoid “more stupid wars” in the Middle East.
However, in the medium term, a reckoning is coming. For, in increasingly siding with America over France and Germany, Johnson will scupper what is left of the Iranian nuclear deal in practice and will work more closely with the US and its Arab allies in the region. The net is closing ever tighter around Tehran. Johnson’s elevation to the premiership is a huge and utterly under-discussed element in this unfolding drama.
• Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via www.chartwellspeakers.com.