How Brexit Links to UK Policy on Iran

ByDr. Banafsheh Keynoush


The UK will soon decide to renegotiate a Brexit deal or make a no-deal departure. Signs point to Britain leaning toward a no-deal hard Brexit, which requires the UK to seek trade deals with the United States in exchange for any loss of trade with Europe. The UK’s Brexit dilemma coincides with a more proactive US-UK Gulf policy to contain Iran, after the recent  tanker dispute between London and Tehran.
Connecting the dots to figure out how the UK’s Brexit policy will influence Iran may not appear as straightforward as first thought. But signs indicate that the two issues are linked. Washington supports a hard Brexit. Last year, it withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimposed trade sanctions against the country. A hard Brexit increases the chance that Britain, another party to the nuclear deal, might withdraw from the agreement if the United States asks.
Any major US-UK trade deal will require British compliance with US global military and political policies. Not surprisingly, Iran wants the UK to eschew a strong transatlantic partnership. If the UK depends more on trade with the United States, it will be harder for Iran to convince London to keep trading with it. This could spell the nuclear deal’s slow death, assuming that the UK  will not suddenly withdraw from the agreement.
The UK’s other European partners to the nuclear deal, Germany and France, want to keep trading with Iran despite US sanctions. But as the UK draws closer to Washington, Iran has tried to signal that the nuclear deal being jeopardized could lead to tensions.
On July 19, Iran seized the MV Mesdar, a British-managed Liberian-flagged vessel, and Stena Impero, a British-flagged oil tanker, in the  Arabian Gulf. The seizures came after a British ship interceded the Iranian Grace 1 oil tanker off Gibraltar carrying 2 million barrels of  oil.
Citing navigation irregularities, Iran-based policy experts warned that London should avoid making a strategic miscalculation by ensnaring itself in a tanker dispute and release Grace 1. The dispute reached its climax after the British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab initially rejected a proposal to exchange the Iranian and UK captured oil tankers.  Gibraltar defied last-minute US efforts to seize Grace 1 and returned the tanker to Iran on August 15.
The tanker dispute triggered the UK into taking action against Iran. At first, London rejected a US offer to protect British ships in the Arabian Gulf waters, but it then called for a coalition of European-led naval missions to ensure navigation safety in the Arabian Gulf.  When a few European countries expressed support, London ditched Washington’s proposal to join a US-led shipping coalition to ensure maritime security in the Arabian Gulf.
Other signs indicate that London was fed up with Iran. Theresa Villiers, who twice as a member of the British Parliament had taken part in rallies by the Iranian opposition group the Mujahedin Khalq, joined Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new cabinet as  environment secretary.
Since these developments, Iran has viewed Brexit with some apprehension. A soft Brexit could see Britain joining EU financial mechanisms to trade with Iran. Aligning with the EU position  on Iran would also allow London to push for a better Brexit deal with Europe in exchange for its commitment to keeping the nuclear deal alive. A hard Brexit could bring London closer to Washington in pushing for Iran’s isolation.
Iran wants to think that London has no desire to support more sanctions against it. Instead, Iran believes that London will pressure Tehran to make Washington happy in order to negotiate  better post-Brexit trade deals with the United States. But London might decide not to withdraw from the nuclear deal, especially if the United States can only offer it  piecemeal trade deals.
Tehran is clinging to hopes that Prime Minister Johnson understands that the United States would seek maximum value from the UK to strike a trade agreement. But Prime Minister Johnson did not have an easy time with Tehran when he traveled to Iran as the UK’s former foreign secretary in 2017. But his trip hardly yielded any results when Tehran reminded him that the UK had not implemented the nuclear agreement and held back on trade with Iran.
Prime Minister Johnson has a choice of ignoring the nuclear agreement and making a no-deal Brexit and a trade deal with the United States. But he will have to weigh several factors. A hard Brexit is not an easy move even if President Trump promises strengthened transatlantic bonds by quadrupling trade. The US Congress could veto trade deals, given Washington’s bipartisan politics.
Protecting the Iranian nuclear deal, and making a soft Brexit could be Prime Minister Johnson’s next choice. This approach could gain support especially if democrats in America vowing to save the Iran deal have chances of winning the next US presidential race in 2020. Prime Minister Johnson might also have to consider the fact that President Trump may want to make his own deal with Iran in this period, in which case it would make sense for the UK to keep its trade options with Tehran open.

Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Dr. Banafsheh Keynoush
Dr. Banafsheh Keynoush
Non-resident fellow at Rasanah-IIIS