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.

War Over Gibraltar? Spanish Threats and Britain’s Post-Brexit Weakness

Between June 1779 and February 1783 British forces in Gibraltar survived an almost unrelenting Franco-Spanish siege, fighting one of the most remarkable defensive actions in early modern history. Given this heroic feat it is perhaps unsurprising that, more than 200 years later, the British government is not willing to give up its Iberian exclave without a fight.

The Great Siege of Gibraltar

Whether it is wise to threaten the claimant Spaniards with war should they attempt to use Gibraltar as a bargaining chip in negotiations over a post-Brexit EU trade deal is somewhat debatable. What is certain, though, is that London is acutely aware of the symbolic importance of their Mediterranean outpost, even if its strategic significance at the gateway to Europe is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Captured from the Kingdom of Castile during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1704, Gibraltar was formerly ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Attempts by the Spaniards to recapture the territory in 1727 and then during the siege of 1779-1783 failed, leaving Gibraltar as an important base for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.

Spain has never relinquished its claim to Gibraltar, a somewhat hypocritical stance mindful to overlook Madrid’s remaining colonial possessions on the North African coastline at Ceuta and Melilla. Periodic diplomatic spats have led to border closures and delays, often carefully orchestrated by Spanish crossing guards.

Border delays following a diplomatic row in 2013

Just as Ceuta and Melilla have a centuries-long affinity with their Spanish motherland, Gibraltar remains unapologetically British. Despite their overwhelming preference to remain within the EU, Gibraltarians have no desire to become part of Spain.

There are of course parallels here with the Falkand Islands, over which Britain went to war against Argentina in 1982. That Spain would attempt a brazen assault on Gibraltar comparable to that launched by the Argentinians against the Falklands is unthinkable, their democratic rulers far more encumbered in their actions than the brutal junta in Buenos Aires ever was.

A classic British telephone box at the Gibraltar walls

What George Augustus Eliott, commander of the Gibraltar garrison during the siege of 1779-1783, would think of the petty squabbles of today one can only guess at. Probably he would be gratified by continuing British sovereignty over the outpost his men fought so hard to maintain, no doubt more than eager to throw himself back into the fiery cauldron of battle.

Fortunately, despite the crass comments of some naive politicians, such a scenario is more than unlikely. However, the Spanish decision to publicise this potential stumbling block for Britain’s future economic relations with Europe points to the dissatisfaction on the continent surrounding the Brexit verdict.

Britain has often been seen as an outsider in Europe, an aloof power whose imperialistic history has not endeared it to many of the nations that remain tightly ensconced in the grip of Brussels.

Undoubtedly further tribulations await Theresa May and her Conservative government. Britain’s European neighbours are likely to resurrect these historical enmities in a vindictive attempt to punish one whose dismantling of the long fought for European federalist project is most unwelcome.

Elliot and his officers in discussion during the Great Siege of Gibraltar, 1782

As the British and the Spanish have long recognised, the power of a rock cannot be measured by conventional indicators. History, nationalism and symbolism combine to make the most toxic of concoctions.