Ever since it came in to office, the Trump Administration has had a single response to problems in the Middle East. The Saudi-led war in Yemen? It is due to Iran’s attempts to extend its reach. The Palestinians refusing to accept the US’s attempts to take away their capital, in return for vague assurances of help with economic development? It is Iran’s malicious influence. Israel’s bombing of Beirut? It is provocation from Iran’s client, Hizbullah. The murderous despot in Damascus? Iran (let’s not mention Russia) is establishing an outlet to the Mediterranean.
It is not that the Iranian government is innocent of all these charges – it does have regional policy that is broadly hostile to US interests, particularly those which threaten it. It also seems to consider that its own interests are only taken seriously by outside powers when it challenges those powers – as shown by its staged increase in nuclear enrichment and the instalment of centrifuges, as a way to prompt European states to take seriously their commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal. Its human rights violations remain severe – most obviously its detention of dual nationals on spurious charges, and the highly discriminatory policies it practices against its citizens. In this, Iran is hardly unique – the US’s chief allies in the region tend to use much greater violence against their citizens than Iran does, even as the US has dropped all mention of murdered Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi from its public statements on the region.
The issue is that by attributing all acts in the region that threaten US interests to Iran, the US response to any new hostile acts will end up focusing, through its military, on Iran. At the moment, the majority of the US public report in surveys that they would not support a war with Iran. Though this majority is large, it is soft: a significant hostile act attributable to Iran, and the public position will change. This is not an accident: it is more plausible to see it as a deliberate policy of the Trump Administration, particularly chief National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has for 30 years been a proponent of regime change in Iran, working as recently as 2016 as a paid lobbyist for an Islamist opposition group to the Iranian regime.
This attempt to make US public opinion conducive to war is brought out particularly with the current US sanctions regime on Iran. Economic sanctions are often thought about as a tool for containment, for punishing a regime or a country without the use of military force. But the US sanctions policy on Iran is different, aimed at not only isolating Iran but humiliating the regime. This approach is also taken with a reported largescale US campaign of cyberattacks on Iran, and most recently with its attempts to bribe Iranian ship captains to turn over Iranian assets to the US – a deeply corrupt practice of inciting theft of state assets. These policies are best understood as a way to provoke the Iranian government, to goad it into lashing out militarily, which would then in turn provide the basis for US escalation against Iran.
And this is where the British government becomes useful for the US. The cushion that at the moment is preventing Iran’s full-scale abandonment of the 2015 nuclear deal is the commitment from other countries which still support it – particularly, the ‘EU3’: France, Germany and the UK. Their response has been slow, and largely in words rather than in deeds. It became clear in 2016 that Trump would pull out from the deal and try to penalise others who traded with Iran, but it was only in June 2019 that the EU launched its system, INSTEX, currently only for supplying humanitarian goods to Iran through a bartering system. Its effect is small in scale, doing little to mitigate Iran’s current economic collapse.
For the US government, the British government is their route to stopping this scheme ever becoming effective. The greatest challenge to US authority in the Gulf would be an EU-launched trading scheme that displaces the centrality of the US and the US dollar. So instead of pushing for the expansion of INSTEX, the UK has joined with the US-led naval mission in the Gulf, and has been trying – so far unsuccessfully – to persuade other EU countries to join it. It places the UK navy directly under US overall control. The official reason for the fleet is the protection of UK-flagged tankers, but the US is also attempting to disrupt Iranian oil exports, including through harassing Iranian ships. This is the new frontline, and if the goading works, will place Britain directly into the role of co-combatant with the US against Iran. This is the price of having the US as the UK’s only significant ally remaining, as Britain tumbles towards no-deal with the EU and a supplicant’s deal with the US.
is a Lecturer and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, specializing in political theory and international law.