In a matter of a few months, relations between Iran and the UK have oscillated wildly.
They have gone from moving dangerously towards war to one of cooperating to de-escalate tension in the region to again escalation. Now with the release of Grace One, the Iranian oil tanker, the release of a British oil tanker currently being held by Iran is in the offing. And with it another period of de-escalation.
The heated exchanges between the two countries following the UK’s seizure of an Iranian oil tanker, Grace One, in Gibraltar with Britain accusing Iran of attempting to deliver oil to Syria while Iran accused the UK of “piracy” and being “a servant of the US orders”.
On July 10 three Iranian gunboats allegedly tried to halt the passage of the British Heritage, through the Strait of Hormuz. They soon backed down—but only because a British warship trailed the vessel. Reportedly the frigate had trained its guns on the Iranian boats.
Iran perceived the capture of the Iranian oil tanker as the UK joining the US campaign of pressure against Iran, and adding to the US militarization of the Persian Gulf, which had seen three US battleships move to the region. Warnings of reciprocal action followed from Iran.
The US campaign of maximum pressure, coupled with hundreds of sanctions, have crippled Iran’s economy. Especially devastating are the oil and banking sanctions starving the economy.
Since the US President Donald Trump unilaterally left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in November 2018, Iran has been warning that if European countries do not ease trade and investment for Iran, it will begin its partial withdrawal.
Finally, on May 8 that process began, and on July 7 Iran announced phased uranium enrichment saying it will meet violation with a violation and positive actions with positive actions.
Jeremy Hunt tweeted in July: “Just spoke to Iranian Foreign Minister, Zarif, I reassured him our concern was destination not the origin of the oil on Grace One”.
Details are sketchy, but that conversation seemed to have broken the ice.
“Mr Zarif wants to resolve the issue and was not seeking to escalate,” Hunt told reporters.
“Tensions in the Middle East could pose an existential threat to mankind unless the Iran nuclear deal is maintained,” he said.
Since the regional crisis escalated two months ago, this was perhaps the starkest warning about the importance of keeping JCPOA intact.
By lifting the blame from Iran and then shifting his focus to saving JCPOA Jeremy Hunt, the now-former British Foreign Secretary, managed to ease the tension with Iran, tacitly turning the criticism to the US instead for abandoning the deal.
The UK and US "have a different view as to how we keep the region denuclearised,” he said.
Mr Zarif travelled to New York in July while there had been talks of US imposing sanctions on him. It appears that Britain might have mediated. The US decided not to impose those sanctions, and Zarif was issued with a limited US visa to attend the UN and six blocks around.
As a sign that Iran is still open to cooperation and in a move that was unprecedented in recent years the British Broadcasting Corporation, always distrusted in Iran, was allowed after months of requests to send a closely monitored report from inside Iran.
The BBC is banned from holding an office in Iran. Two years ago, the BBC complained to the UN accusing Iran of harassing and threatening BBC Persian Service staff and their family.
The EU’s full support for JCPOA is a warning to the US of the possible toxic consequences of its departure.
Falling out with Iran will not just lead to a possible return to nuclear production it will also increase tension in the Strait of Hormuz, described as the world’s most important oil chokepoint, a gateway for almost a third of all crude oil carried by tankers. Iran’s blocked oil could also lead to a rise in oil prices and causing instability in European markets.
EU statements, however, are not enough. Europe and the UN as JCPOA guarantors must play a far stronger role in persuading the American President to ease the pressure by reducing the oil and banking sanctions on Iran.
Iran has said the door to talks is open if sanctions are lifted.
Jeremy Hunt at the time was wise to soften his tone. That strategy must continue even under the premiership of Boris Johnson, a close ally of President Trump.
President Trump is facing elections for a second term. Having pulled out of a working deal, having exerted his maximum pressure, he must stop now and peruse talks rather than war with Iran. He will not win the backing of European allies for strikes. China and Russia would vehemently oppose any action at all.
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