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Will Boris Johnson Defy Washington on Iran?

Britain's new PM supported the Iran deal in the past. But Brexit may force his hand—and John Bolton knows it.
Boris Johnson

As Boris Johnson ascends to the British prime ministership, the questions of how UK foreign policy will change, and what impact his leadership will have on simmering tensions with Iran, remains wide open.

The relationship between the UK and Iran reached a boiling point when Britain’s Royal Navy seized an Iranian oil tanker that the British accused of violating EU sanctions on July 4. In apparent retaliation, Iran seized a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz two weeks later. Both countries remain in possession of each other’s tankers, and although a vessel swap has been suggested by Iran’s president, and even endorsed by the prime minister’s father, Stanley Johnson, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has rejected the idea. The British tanker, the Stena Impero, and its 23 crew members are currently detained at Bandar Abbas port in southern Iran.

Britain’s fracas with Iran is complicated by the murky legality of the seizures. While both London and Washington insist that Britain’s action against the Iranian tanker were legal and that it is Iran that acted illegally, the facts suggest that, as TAC‘s Gareth Porter has written, “like the Iranian detention of the British ship, it was an illegal interference with freedom of navigation through an international strait.” Porter adds, “Evidence indicates that the British move was part of a bigger scheme coordinated by [U.S.] National Security Advisor John Bolton.”

That’s worrying, because Bolton is a notorious war hawk who has pushed for conflict with Iran for decades. Brexiteers want a warm relationship with the United States. But does that mean Johnson’s government will curry favor by acquiescing to Bolton’s demands?

It’s hard to know the answer to that question, because as foreign secretary, Johnson famously reversed course on war with Syria (he was against it before he was for it), and even flip-flopped on Brexit, currently his signature issue. After praising the European Union for years, saying it was responsible for the longest peace since Pax Romana, he changed his tune and said the EU experiment was, like the fevered dreams of Napoleon and Hitler, doomed to failure. And though he was appointed by his predecessor, Theresa May, to serve as Britain’s highest-ranking diplomat, the two never saw eye to eye, particularly on Brexit.

Throughout his career, Johnson, a former political columnist and Eton and Oxford graduate, has earned a reputation as an opportunist and people pleaser who takes popular positions to assure his own political advancement.

His former colleagues at the foreign office told The Guardian that Johnson is an intelligent man who did not want to work hard.

“He was smart, but he had the attention span of a gnat,” one British official said.

It was that casual approach to a serious job that led Johnson to make an embarrassing and extremely consequential gaffe as foreign secretary.

In November 2017, Johnson told the foreign affairs select committee that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British Iranian detained in Iran, was training journalists, a mistake that Iranian officials used to accuse her of being a spy. Although she insisted she was just visiting family, three days after Johnson spoke, she was summoned to an Iranian court hearing where Johnson’s remarks were cited as proof that she was engaged in “propaganda against the regime.”

She remains in prison.

That wasn’t the only time that Johnson’s undiplomatic utterances got him into trouble.

Johnson once wrote in The Spectator that Africa’s problems were not due to “Britain, or colonialism, or the white man. The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.”

The article recently resurfaced as some Brits accused him of racism under the hashtag #NotmyPM.

Remember Donald Trump’s statement that North Korea has “great beaches” that would be a perfect for condos and hotels? Johnson makes Trump look positively politically correct. In October 2017, he suggested that the formerly ISIS-occupied city of Sirte in Libya could become the next Dubai, if only it could clear away the “dead bodies.”

Johnson stepped into hot water again earlier this year when he began to recite a colonial-themed poem by Rudyard Kipling during his visit to Myanmar. The British ambassador had to interrupt him because it was “not appropriate.”

In 2016, when he was the flamboyant mayor of London and “chief Brexiteer,” Johnson won the Spectator‘s “President Erdogan Offensive Poetry competition.” Created by Douglas Murray in response to Angela Merkel’s censorship of a German comedian for comments about Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it was intended to show that “in Britain we still live and breathe free.”

Johnson, former editor of that magazine, won the contest and £1,000 for a poem that suggests Erdogan had sex with a goat:

There was a young fellow from Ankara
Who was a terrific wankerer
Till he sowed his wild oats
With the help of a goat
But he didn’t even stop to thankera.

The main challenge for the Johnson government will be to negotiate Brexit with the EU by October 31. “Two new committees have been created—the Exit Strategy committee, known as XS, to make key Brexit decisions, and the Daily Operations Committee, to deal with the nitty gritty of no-deal planning,” reports the BBC, which adds that the former will meet twice a week and include six senior ministers, including the PM and foreign secretary.

There’s a link between Brexit and British policy towards Iran. If Britain ends up leaving the EU without a deal, it may have to protect its economy by making a quick trade deal with the U.S. That scenario would leave Johnson’s government vulnerable to Washington’s leverage.

As The Atlantic‘s Tom McTague reports:

The U.S. could push for greater British cooperation in restricting the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, which Washington says is a national-security risk; it could demand favorable terms in any future trade deal; or it could attempt to force London to take a harder line against Iran. This prospect is being taken seriously not only here in London but in other European capitals, according to conversations I have had with three senior U.K. officials at the core of Brexit and Iranian policy making, as well as multiple European diplomats, British politicians, and foreign-policy experts. …

However, some of the officials I spoke with said fears have been raised that as prime minister, facing an economic crisis caused by his hard-line Brexit policy, Johnson may prove more susceptible to U.S. leverage to break away from France and Germany to secure concessions on trade.

Parliament’s recess gives Johnson a small amount of breathing room wherein he can reassess Britain’s policy on Iran. He could choose to deescalate with the Iranians and convince them to not drastically exceed their agreed-upon uranium enrichment levels. That’s what France and Germany are urging. Still, a breakdown in relations with Europe or an escalation in Iranian hostility could inseparably yoke Brexit and Britain’s Iran policy.

It’s hard to say just what direction Johnson will take. He previously opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran deal, but like many Brexiteers, he is also deeply wedded to the United Kingdom’s “special relationship” with the United States.

It’s still early, but so far, Johnson’s government has not deviated from Theresa May’s policy towards the Islamic Republic. And after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani suggested last week that Iran might release the Stena Impero if the UK returned the Grace 1, Raab ruled it out.

“There is no quid pro quo,” Raab said on the BBC’s “Today” radio program. “Grace 1 was intercepted because it was in breach of sanctions and heading with oil to Syria.”

“We were absolutely lawfully entitled to detain it in the way we did. The Stena Impero was unlawfully detained,” Raab added. “So this isn’t about some kind of barter. This is about international law and the rules of the international legal system being upheld, and this is what we will insist on.”

Barbara Boland is The American Conservative’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.