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U.K. Approach Toward Iran Points to Post-Brexit Turning Point

Alex Morales

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Boris Johnson’s positioning on the Iran nuclear deal points to a junction the U.K. is fast approaching in its international relations: stick with long-held European positions, or turn toward the U.S.

On Sunday, Britain joined France and Germany in reaffirming their commitment to the agreement struck between the Islamic Republic and western powers in 2015, even though its closest ally, the U.S., has pulled out. That came despite Iran briefly arresting the U.K.’s ambassador in Tehran on Saturday, leading Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s to issue a robust response.

“The Iranian government is at a crossroads moment,” Raab said in a statement. “It can continue its march toward pariah status with all the political and economic isolation that entails, or take steps to deescalate tensions.”

But the U.K. is also at a crossroads. How Prime Minister Boris Johnson handles Iran and the nuclear deal will indicate how much he’s prepared to cozy up to U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration as Britain leaves the European Union and shifts away from shared EU positions of old.

Trump in 2018 tore up the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, which restricted Iran’s nuclear activity in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. Since then, the U.S. has reimposed those sanctions and brought in new ones, while EU nations have stuck to the agreement.

Targeted Killing

For now, Britain is publicly sticking with France and Germany, fellow signatories to the nuclear deal. Since the U.S. ratcheted up tensions with Iran to near breaking point on Jan. 3 with the targeted killing of General Qassem Soleimani, the U.K. has repeatedly said the agreement is still viable.

Johnson made that point in the House of Commons on Wednesday, and Sunday’s joint statement by the three European nations, known as the E3, reinforced it.

“We have made clear our regret and concern at the decision by the United States to withdraw from the JCPOA and to re-impose sanctions on Iran,” the three countries said. “Our message is clear: we remain committed to the JCPOA and to preserving it. We urge Iran to reverse all measures inconsistent with the agreement and return to full compliance.”

Complex History

The U.K. has a long and complex history with Iran, where it once controlled the oil industry. Unlike the U.S., which has had no formal ties with Iran since 1980, the U.K. has an embassy in Tehran, which reopened in 2015 after an attack four years earlier forced its closure.

But the relationship is fraught: if Iranians consider the U.S. the Great Satan, then the U.K. is its Little Satan. That was demonstrated in the wake of Soleimani’s killing, when protesters took to the streets to burn the American, Israeli and British flags.

The mutual suspicion was in evidence again on Saturday with the three-hour detention of British Ambassador Rob Macaire, after he attended a vigil for the victims of the Tehran plane crash which turned into a demonstration. Iran’s foreign ministry said it summoned Macaire for his “unconventional conduct and presence in illegal gatherings.”

Raab called the arrest a “flagrant violation of international law,” while Macaire said on Twitter that he’d left the vigil after five minutes when people started chanting.

Wavering

Iran provides a test of the U.K.’s security priorities. Geographically closer to Iran than the U.S., European nations are less willing to provoke the Islamic Republic while working toward the goal they share with the Americans of ensuring it doesn’t develop nuclear weapons.

After Brexit, Britain won’t be bound by the need to forge a common foreign and security policy with the EU -- though it will still want close ties with the bloc. But it also wants closer trade links with the U.S. and is likely to come under pressure to align itself more with Trump in order to achieve them.

While publicly backing the Iran deal, cracks were beginning to show in the British position at an EU meeting of foreign ministers on Friday. The U.K. sided with Poland, leading calls for European nations to follow the U.S. and pull out of the nuclear deal, according to one diplomat in the room.

It’s not the first time Johnson has wavered. “Whatever your objections to the old nuclear deal with Iran, it’s time now to move forward and do a new deal,” he said in September. Sunday’s E3 statement hints at a plan to make the agreement palatable to the U.S., saying there’s a “need to define a long-term framework for Iran’s nuclear program.” Under the JCPOA, restrictions on Iran last for 15 years.

A U.K. government official said rather than backing away from the JCPOA, Britain is instead trying to find a way forward under the framework of the deal that Trump can be comfortable with. That points to a role for the U.K. of bringing EU and U.S. positions closer together, something Johnson trumpeted in the House of Commons on Wednesday when addressing the tensions over Soleimani’s killing.

“We are having a great deal of success in bringing together a European response and in bridging the European response with that, of course, of our American friends,” Johnson said.

The question is whether after Brexit he’ll be able to remain in the middle, or whether he’ll be forced by commercial needs to pick a side.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Morales in London at amorales2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tim Ross at tross54@bloomberg.net, James Ludden

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