Britain's inexplicable decision to pick a fight with Iran

Why are the British seizing foreign vessels in the dog days of a failed government, when they have a prime minister in name only?

An oil tanker.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Morteza Akhoondi/Tasnim News Agency via AP, Vagengeym_Elena_iStock)

There are almost no words to describe the monumental folly of the United Kingdom in seizing Grace 1, an Iranian oil tanker, in Gibraltar. Tehran has responded by capturing the British-flagged Stena Impero and holding it until further notice. This is unfortunate. It is also totally predictable and, in a sense, even reasonable.

When the Grace 1 was boarded on July 4 by the Royal Marines, British authorities explained that the ship, which was carrying Iranian crude oil, was bound for a refinery in Syria. A spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry referred to the seizure on state television as "illegal." This is arguable. But no one, least of all Britain's foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, should have been surprised when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard boarded two British ships last week in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz and ordered one of them, the Stena Impero, to go to Iran on the pretext that it was "violating international maritime rules."

Why would the British seize a foreign vessel in the dog days of a failed government, when they have a prime minister in name only? The ostensible reason for Grace 1's capture was the enforcement of European Union sanctions against Syria. Haven't they got more urgent problems, like the constitutional status of an ill-conceived 2016 referendum, than Iranian oil tankers going about their business? Doing the dirty work of a bunch of posturing Eurocrat hucksters is not going to score you guys a better Brexit deal.

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Besides, why is Britain antagonizing Iran in the first place? What would have happened if HMS Montrose of the British navy, which was alerted of the Stena's boarding but too far away to respond, had been nearby? Or what if the seizing of the first ship had led immediately to a serious conflict? Would Britain be prepared to fight the war on their own? Or would they be expecting the United States, with its "pompous fool of a president," to bail them out? Suppose we declined to do so. The spectacle of the United Kingdom surrendering to the mullahs would be humiliating. A cynic might suggest that such a reckoning might do them a world of good. There is no shame in being a third-rate bankers' colony, especially after you have given the world Shakespeare, the Authorized Edition of the Bible, Jane Austen, and a sport that became the template for baseball.

This is not mere ribbing, though it is meant to be good natured. Britain is not an independent naval power or an independent power of any other sort. She has not been one in decades, arguably since the Eisenhower administration, if not 1945. Whatever the attitude is among those currently in the ascendant in the Conservative Party, this reality is unlikely to change soon. With the leaking of British diplomatic cables critical of Trump, there is probably no worse time to be calling on the support of the United States, not least because there is very little evidence that President Trump is willing to pursue a war with Tehran. Even the presence of hardliners like John Bolton in his administration are, if reports are to be believed, part of a diplomatic strategy meant to fool the Iranians into thinking that he is prepared to do things for which he has absolutely no stomach.

What are the British going to do about it now? If Boris Johnson becomes the next prime minister, he is widely expected to pursue closer relations with the United States. Good for him. But he should not expect us to lift a finger to save him from the folly of his predecessors. For once in his life, our hawkish Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is absolutely right. This is Britain's problem. If they or any other European country wants American protection in the Gulf, they will have to get on board with Trump's rejection of the 2015 nuclear deal that both Iran and the United States have decided to disregard. Wagging fingers while the Iranians enrich uranium beyond agreed-upon levels is not going to bring Trump rushing to your aid. Nor is it going to convince Tehran that you are an opponent worth taking seriously.

It should be clear by now that the Trump administration has two goals in the region. The first is to end Iran's nuclear ambitions permanently — and to do so by insisting upon things like an inspections regime that allows access to the sorts of places where illicit uranium enrichment and missile building might actually be carried on. The second is to diminish Iran's power in the region. Attempting both at once might be foolish, even impossible, and there are probably good reasons for any prime minister to remain at arm's length from either of these efforts. But it still makes a great deal more sense than Britain's attempt to endear itself to Tehran by seizing their merchant vessels on behalf of Germany and France.

The best bet for Boris when he assumes office is a speedy bit of diplomacy behind closed doors — your ship back in exchange for ours, no questions asked, no hard feelings, and firm assurance that nothing like this ever happens again. With the threat of ever-increasing American sanctions looming every day, Iran has every reason to return to a status quo in which the United States is the only English-speaking country being needlessly belligerent towards the second largest nation in the Middle East.

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Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.