Uncertainty Looms Over Boris Johnson’s Response to Iranian Seizure of British Tanker

July 23, 2019

Could Trump and Bolton push Britain out of the Iran nuclear treaty? Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi discusses whether Boris Johnson could act as the U.S.'s errand boy as he assumes power as prime minister

Could Trump and Bolton push Britain out of the Iran nuclear treaty? Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi discusses whether Boris Johnson could act as the U.S.'s errand boy as he assumes power as prime minister


Uncertainty Looms Over Boris Johnson's Response to Iranian Seizure of British Tanker

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.

Well, Theresa May is stepping down. Most likely, Boris Johnson will become the next prime minister as tensions are deepening to a really dangerous level with Iran. Britain seized one of their ships they said was bound for Syria in violation of a boycott. Iran accused Britain of piracy. Then Iran seized a ship under the British flag. So before Boris Johnson can deal with Brussels and Brexit and all the rest, he has to deal with Iran and most importantly, the John Bolton-influenced Donald Trump. What will this hold for the increasing tensions with Iran and Trump’s unilateral dismantling and scuttling of the accord that allowed Iran to continue to be part of the World Trade economy, as long as it allowed international inspectors to confirm how it was using its nuclear power? So with that situation, what’s next for Boris? Leaving the agreement as well, is that what he will do? Forcing European allies to go along with it because he and Trump will make that happen? Could a mishap just put war on the horizon?

We are joined by Dr. Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, lecturer and Assistant Professor at Goldsmiths at the University of London. Eskandar, welcome back. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.

DR. ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI Good to be with you.

MARC STEINER So this is a very complex situation. I think that—Would you just, just so our listeners get a sense of this because it popped up on the internet just earlier today. This is just a little bit of the audio that took place between the Iranians and the British ship.

IRANIAN OFFICER If you obey, you will be safe. Alter your course, 3-6-0 degrees immediately, over.

BRITISH OFFICER Sir, I reiterate that as you are conducting transit passage in a recognized international strait, under international law your passage must not be impaired, impeded, obstructed or hampered.

IRANIAN OFFICER This is [inaudible]. No challenge is intended. No challenge is intended. I want to inspect the ship for security reasons, over.

BRITISH OFFICER You must not impair, impede, obstruct or hamper the passage of the MV Stena Impero. Please confirm that you are not intending to violate international law by unlawfully attempting to board the MV Stena [Impero].

MARC STEINER So Eskandar, I’m just curious when you first heard this, when this happened between the British seizing of the Iranian ship and the latest with the Iranians seizing the British ship, what your first piece of analysis and thoughts were as you heard this— before we jump into the question of Boris Johnson and where we go next?

DR. ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI Well, when I initially heard of the British, sort of, aiding the impounding of the Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar, I thought that it was pretty predictable that Iran would show some sort of response, and had vowed to, and it obviously called it piracy. And through subsequent revelations, it appeared at least, you know, the Spanish were very unhappy with the British taking this action, the foreign minister who actually hinted that this was done at the behest of the United States, and obviously a lot of people have been pointing to Trump’s hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton on that score. So when I first heard of the British action, you know, off the coast of Gibraltar, I thought that something would be forthcoming. But yeah, obviously, what kind of response it would be and whether Iran would respond in kind by also impounding a British vessel or one that was with a British flag, at that time of course I wasn’t sure. But obviously when that did happen, it wasn’t actually very surprising at all.

MARC STEINER So Boris Johnson has not said much at least publicly in the last day or so since all this happened, but earlier he had this to say and I really do want to dive into what could happen now as Boris Johnson prepares to become prime minister, how this would affect this? But let’s hear what he said earlier. I think it was on July the 11th.

BORIS JOHNSON, BRITISH POLITICIAN I think it’s very important that all vessels, UK-flagged or otherwise, are able to use international waters in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere with perfect security. Of course were I to be elected, I would be taking immediate advice about what extra steps we might need to protect UK vessels.

MARC STEINER So clearly, Boris Johnson in many ways is in a political kinship with Donald Trump— and it’s not just because they both have interesting hair. [laughs] I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist. But—

DR. ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI That was good. [laughs]

MARC STEINER But let’s talk seriously about what this could mean. I mean, is it possible do you think that John Bolton and his push and his influence over Donald Trump could then have this deep influence over Boris Johnson as he tries to address Iran? That they too could pull out of the deal? Is that possible?

DR. ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI It’s certainly possible. But, I mean, obviously Boris Johnson is going to have to show himself to be, you know, a strong and effective leader. He’s going to have to talk tough. He’s going to have to take a tough position. And whether that will actually, you know, materialize in action, and what kind of action could the British state actually take—I mean, there has been talk of maybe freezing assets. There’s been talk of actually trying to forge a maritime naval protection, sort of, coalition that would actually protect various vessels going through the Strait of Hormuz. But again, these things take time and it can’t—They’re not just going to simply materialize overnight.

So I think he probably will talk tough, but unlike obviously the United States, which does not have diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic, Britain currently does. It has an ambassador, so there are diplomatic channels which are open. Obviously, Jeremy Hunt, the current foreign secretary, did voice his disappointment or anger at the fact that the British vessel had been impounded. Again, what tangible action they can take and whether they would actually pull out of the nuclear deal, I think it’s quite— it’s not clear. And to be honest, given Brexit, it’s also unclear to what extent Britain will really be able to influence other European members of the P5+1. But in subsequent months, it’s not at all, it’s quite still very much—I think, you know, that recently Theresa May held a meeting, a sort of high-level meeting, and I think they’re really still trying to come up with a strategy because they don’t really have one.

MARC STEINER So. And given what you just said as well, I mean, Brexit is going to put Boris Johnson and Britain in an even weaker position to address their allies in Europe who are part of this deal with Iran. And with the United States pulling out of the deal—I mean, this was also precipitated obviously by the United States pulling out the deal. None of this would have happened had Trump not done that. And he can only do it because this wasn’t really a treaty. It wasn’t passed by the Senate, so he could do that. So I wonder what the consequences could be though with Boris Johnson in power, the relationship with Trump, and Iran taking an increasingly incalcitrant position— saying that you’re not going to push us around, we have our power— and they want to get back into selling their oil. So I mean, this is—

DR. ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI Sure. Yeah. I think there are a few things going on here. So obviously in the British context, there was the context of the Tory leadership race whereby obviously it’s the Tory membership that would elect. You know, it’s a foregone conclusion, but we’re due to elect the next Tory leader who would then obviously become the prime minister. The Tory membership is, sort of, notoriously right-wing, reactionary, unrepresentative of British public opinion in many ways. I can’t remember the average age, but it almost must be in the late 60s or 70s of their membership. So I think they were taking a tough line for that reason on the one hand. But, I mean, Boris Johnson is also quite a chameleon-like figure. He’s not—l mean, he has said some really abhorrent, racist sort of things in the past, but he was also the Mayor of London and is also notorious for being very duplicitous, a kind of opportunist of sorts.

He doesn’t have the, sort of, ideological investment to really push for a war, but obviously because of Brexit, because of Britain’s internal turmoil over the state of the economy, what is going to happen to the state of the City of London, all these sorts of things, it is generally predicted that Britain is going to be forced to, sort of, hew a tighter line to the Trump administration. Whether that would actually—But I think despite Brexit in Britain, in any case, there’s a lot of talk about the special relationship, the special bond with the United States. And it usually really just entails Britain really supporting whatever line is prevalent in Washington at any one time. So I mean, obviously the notorious case of the 2003 Invasion of Iraq where a Labour Prime Minister was forced to, sort of, go along with it.

So it does seem that, yeah, Boris Johnson will definitely be in a position where he will be in a really far more growing weak position. He will probably have to make various concessions to the United States. Whether that entails leaving the deal, I’m not sure and I can’t—But it is entirely possible if there isn’t a de-escalation because I think also we need to say that. Obviously one can say Iran’s decision to impound the oil tanker was very imprudent, it was unnecessarily provocative, but it was clearly a measured response to the British action. And I think it really comes out of this context, whereby Trump obviously since April he then refused to renew these waivers around oil, and obviously this campaign of maximum pressure, which is basically targeting the banking sector and the energy sector and whatnot, but particularly the energy sector. Obviously oil is a key source of revenue, and the Trump administration has been in a very concerted fashion trying to target that and whittle down Iran’s oil revenues to zero.

So basically, I’m sure it seems at least that the British impounding of the tanker is part of a broader strategy. On the one hand you have sanctions, which are to reduce Iranian oil down to zero, or revenues down to zero. But also, you know, this tanker was not carrying a negligible amount of oil either. It was carrying, you know, millions of barrels worth of oil, so clearly Iran didn’t want to allow a precedent to be set where this could happen again and again and again. So hence, this sort of response, which could have been a miscalculation, could further lead to escalation. But as far as I can see, it was really to a large extent a deterrent maneuver to draw a line in the sand and say, you know, the Iranian government will not tolerate this happening again.

And we see this reflected both in, sort of, the moderate and centrist camps’ response to the tankers— people like Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, or Hassan Rouhani— and obviously, much more security-driven actors within the state, so around the Revolutionary Guard and whatnot. And I should just say there is also a degree of schadenfreude within the Iranian public. Obviously, whether they on the whole approve or don’t approve, we simply just don’t have the opinion polls, but there is some degree in so far as Britain was, you know, a former neocolonial power. It had occupied Iran on multiple occasions. Famously it had, you know, an important role in spearheading the 1953 coup which overthrew Mosaddegh—

MARC STEINER Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

DR. ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI In 51′ obviously an oil embargo was enacted by the Navy at that time. So obviously, Iran on its own side is going to also try and, you know, ramp up the nationalist fervor to legitimate this and say, oh, we’re giving in essence the middle finger to the former, sort of, colonial overlord.

MARC STEINER But the question becomes—Let say, Boris Johnson becomes prime minister. One of the things Pompeo has said is that Britain has to kind of take care of its own ships. It has to provide its own security. So if that push comes, and the British Navy has a greater presence in the Gulf, along with the American Navy having a greater presence in the Gulf, and Iran getting increasingly desperate because it doesn’t have the revenues to feed its people, it doesn’t have the medicines to take care of its people, and being pushed the limit because it cannot sell its oil nor steel or anything else with its other partners—I mean, so this is what I mean when this is creeping into a very dangerous direction. That even if they don’t intend war, people could just slip into war.

DR. ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI I completely agree with your analysis. I mean, one of the even—So I love the analysis at the moment. Trump doesn’t obviously want a war. He’s sort of using Bolton as his, as it were, Rottweiler that’s extremely aggressive to basically intimidate, so then he’ll bring Iran to the table. And ultimately, Iran—Because then he’ll be able to basically make a deal which is very similar to the JCPOA, which already existed. But it’s really about him, and obviously we heard this from the British Ambassador to Washington, saying that his, in a sense, dragooning the JCPOA was really far more about him spiting Obama and being able to fashion a new deal with this name on it. But no, I completely agree with your analysis in so far as obviously Trump is trying to play a very you could say haphazard kind of game here using Bolton, and could engender a situation where, yeah, like you said, we’d slip into war. And obviously, the more warships which are sent to the Persian Gulf, it becomes more of a militarized zone, and the likelihood of clashes is going to increase. And I think this is exactly what Bolton and Pompeo actually wanted.

And if you remember, I mean, the US sent a warship not very long ago to the Persian Gulf and bolstered its presence in the region significantly. So I think, yeah, we’re going to be living in very, very tense times. And this is why I think cooler heads have been saying there needs to be a de-escalation. So I mean, if it’s ultimately like an exchange of the tankers and then an attempt for Britain to say no, we need to stick with the JCPOA because the problem is that, you know, Iran has been quite patient for a number of years while the United States has in a very concerted fashion sought to really make it completely unworkable. And the EU unfortunately hasn’t been able to get this special purpose vehicle up and going. It hasn’t enabled a situation whereby Iran would see the benefits of the JCPOA, and we’re going to see an ongoing escalation [inaudible]. And of course, the Iranian state is going to react in a way it sees as commensurate with the threats which it basically is under or it sees itself to be threatened by.

MARC STEINER I mean, why would Iran want to continue with a deal when it can’t sell its oil? And the deal—I mean, right now the agreement means nothing. I mean, given the United States backing out. I mean, it’s just a worthless piece of paper at the moment.

DR. ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI Yeah. Yeah—

MARC STEINER So this is a—I’m sorry. Very quickly. We’re about to end, but what were you going to say? Very quickly. I’m sorry, Eskandar.

DR. ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI No, no. So I was just going to say. I mean, obviously, whether—Obviously, you’re saying it’s not tenable whether Britain will pull out, and obviously making it an even more worthless piece of paper is yet to be seen. But yeah, I don’t think on the immediate cards at least there is any prospect of a major renegotiation. Iran is obviously sending out feelers. Like, I mean just recently a couple of days ago, Zarif did say that Iran would be willing to accept an even more robust kind of nuclear inspection—

MARC STEINER Which was dismissed by many, adding to what you said.

DR. ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI Yeah, which ultimately I think it’s a political question. It’s not about nonproliferation. It’s really about—I think the core of it is about the normalization of Iran. And one of the key points, I think Gary Sick put this very well in a recent op-ed where he said one of the key pillars of the Trump administration’s policy— if you could call it a policy— is really bringing together Israel with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab [Emirates] as a coalition in order to basically encircle and really put the kibosh on the Islamic Republic. And whether there’s actually a positive Iran policy counterpoint, that is yet to be seen. Obviously, there’s a lot of rumors about Trump ultimately is leading to that, but obviously his advisors— as we’ve just seen in the case of the North Korea negotiations— have yet to really yield anything tangible. So despite, sort of, Trump’s desire for a photo op, there is no real concrete plan or positive vision for a new sort of settlement with Iran as far as I can see. And if there is, it’s basically the JCPOA with Trump’s face on it.

MARC STEINER So one of the next moves will be Boris Johnson as the new prime minister. We’ll see how that turns out when that happens. Dr. Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, thank you so much for joining us once again at The Real News. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you.

DR. ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI Pleasure. Thank you so much.

MARC STEINER Enjoy your evening.

DR. ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI Thank you.

MARC STEINER And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think. Take care.