It is ‘impossible’ for the Royal Navy to escort every British ship in the Iranian Gulf according to Defence minister Tobias Ellwood. It may be stating the obvious but it is a sentiment that a UK government official would never have contemplated uttering a century or more ago. Indeed, one wonders whether Margaret Thatcher would have allowed her ministers to be so bold in their pessimism?
Following the Iranian seizure of a British-flagged ship London is, without reluctance, confirming its reduced presence and status in global affairs. The slow response to the hijacking is characteristic of a confused and unassertive foreign policy, something that has plagued successive governments for at least the last 15 years.
Of course the halcyon days of British naval supremacy and imperialistic overreach have long receded into the realms of history. With huge domestic challenges relating to managing the Brexit fallout, and a sluggish economy, Downing Street could be forgiven for wanting to take a step back when it comes to global affairs.
Yet the Iranian ‘state piracy’ – as Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called it – is such an unacceptable act, contravening all international rules and norms, that it really requires a strong national response. As US Secretary of Mike Pompeo has said, responsibility for safeguarding British ships is the UK’s alone.
It seems as if economic sanctions will be levied on Tehran by the British government. This is likely to be little more than a token gesture, with far more extensive American sanctions already in place against the Iranian economy. Whilst Hunt has declared that Tehran must now accept a ‘larger Western military presence’ in the Gulf, he falls short of stating that additional British warships will be deployed there.
Yes the Royal Navy has been drastically reduced in size in recent years, yet it remains a formidable force. Iran takes notice of force. The Israelis have demonstrated this with air strikes against Iranian assets in recent years. Nobody wants a confrontation to accidentally slide into war but a heightened British presence in the Gulf seems the minimum response to such an outrage.
In 1982 the Conservative government responded to the Argentine occupation of the Falklands with an unwavering demonstration of force. The scenario today is different, and the Iranians are a far more formidable opponent than the Argentinians were, but that sort of assertiveness that would reassure not just British merchants but also their allies (the seized tanker is Swedish-owned) is sorely lacking.
With a permanent seat and veto on the UN Security Council, coupled with a strong nuclear deterrent and military bases across the world, Britain would do well to remember its power and global projection capabilities.
Iran is a rogue state. It does not respect its neighbours or any other nation. In 2007, 15 British sailors and marines carrying out anti-smuggling operations in the Gulf were arrested by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, who had no authorisation from Tehran for an act that could have led to war and yet their commander was feted as a hero by the clerical government. Even then, the immediate British response was ponderous and overly concerned with legalities.
The Iranians were destined to breach the nuclear accord negotiated in 2015 and is a sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East. As I wrote at the time, the Obama-era accord had the potential to be a historic mistake. Paying lip service to an agreement that would always be difficult to regulate gave Tehran breathing space to continue its nefarious activities in other arenas.
It is time that nations other than the US and Israel show some guts in fighting back against this pariah. The British show so far has been both embarrassing and sorely ineffective.