British Dithering on Iran Tanker Crisis Confirms Terminal Decline: Tehran Continues to Defy International Rules

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.

Iranian state television has released footage of the multinational crew

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.

Israel has made a habit of striking Iranian facilities in Syria

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.

HMS Hermes’ triumphant return from the Falklands – even at a time of domestic economic crisis, Britain’s foreign policy retained a consistent assertiveness

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.

Yemen Crisis Deepens: is it time for decisive action?

The UN is warning of yet another potential humanitarian crisis in the Middle East as the citizens of Yemen become the innocent victims in the Saudi-led air campaign attempting to halt the advance of Shiite Houthi rebels, who now control large swathes of the strife-riven country. Complicating matters is the division within the Yemeni Army. Whilst some troops support the ousted President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, others are in favour of the Houthi insurgency, whilst further factions still are fighting for the return of former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down during the Arab Spring in 2011.

The current state of Yemen Source: Wikipedia
The current state of Yemen
Source: Wikipedia

Added to this is the Iranian support for their fellow Shiites, whilst the US and other Gulf states have taken the side of Saudi Arabia and Hadi. The US, whilst not directly involved in the military intervention, is providing logistical and diplomatic support to its participants. Taking advantage of the conflict and confusion is Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), at this time the most formidable branch of the terrorist organisation.

But where is the UK in all of this? Its embassy in the capital Sana’a was withdrawn in February and, unsurprisingly, travel to the country is expressly discouraged. But should the UK being playing a greater role given its history in the region?

The southern port city of Aden is currently the battleground between Houthi/Saleh Shia forces and the Sunnis loyal to Hadi. Between 1839 and 1963, Aden was a British possession, first as part of the Raj and then as a Crown colony. Surrounding it was the Aden Protectorate, effectively the southern and eastern parts of Yemen now controlled by either Hadi loyalists or AQAP.

Aden Protectorate Source: Robinson Library
Aden Protectorate
Source: Robinson Library

In 1963, the crown colony and the protectorate merged to form the the Federation of South Arabia, part of the Commonwealth. On independence in 1967, the Federation became the People’s Republic of South Yemen, subsequently the communist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.

Meanwhile, the northern part of the country, centred on Sana’a, experienced an altogether different history. Formerly an Ottoman enclave, it gained independence as the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen after the First World War. Its religion was strictly Shia Islam and it was ruled with an iron fist by the monarchs Imam Yahya Hamid ed-Din (1918-1948) and Ahmad bin Yahya (1948-1962). On the latter’s demise, the state became known as the Yemen Arab Republic.

North Yemen, as it was commonly called, fell under the dictatorship of Saleh in 1978 and in 1990 he helped orchestrate a merger with the south to form modern Yemen. An attempted secession by southern militants in 1994 resulted in the Yemen Civil War, which the North quickly won, despite Saudi support for the secessionists.

As with many of its former colonies, Britain has remained detached from subsequent events in this country that it helped forge.

At the moment, there does not seem any logical reason why the British Government would get militarily involved in Yemen, particularly during election season. Whereas the US has made the mistake of tentatively supporting the Saudi-led campaign – despite the participation of detestable governments such as Sudan and the dreadful humanitarian crisis the bombing seems to be creating – the UK has steered clear.

However, the justification for intervention in Libya was predicated on the protection of civilians. Were there a viable way to safeguard innocent citizens from the overspill of conflict, an unprecedented opportunity may now be available to prevent the worst excesses of the Iranian-backed Houthis, destroy AQAP and tip the balance of power on the Arabian Peninsula towards pro-Western states.

Fighters on all sides remain defiant despite the air strikes Source: BBC
Fighters on all sides remain defiant despite the air strikes
Source: BBC

The UK has a long history in Yemen that few in the country are aware of. The country now become a critical staging point for the proxy-battle of the Middle East between the Saudi/Sunni and Iranian/Shia axes. Sooner or later, the West will have to get more directly involved if this conflict is not to spread globally. If not in Yemen, it will be somewhere else.

Now might be the time to show some fortitude and strike for a peace that, quite frankly, few people can envisage.