19 August 2021

Britain must play a leading role in defending Europe from Iranian interference

By Robert Tyler

For many in the West it’s hard to credit that Iran was responsible for the recent incident in the Gulf in which a British oil tanker struck by a drone. The unprovoked attack on the vessel, which resulted in the death of one British seaman, and his Romanian colleague, is seen by many as tantamount to an act of war. 

However, this was not the first time that Iran has acted aggressively towards civilian ships in the region. In 2019 another British vessel, the Stena Impero, was seized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as it passed through the Straits of Hormuz. The tanker was held off the coast, with the crew in effect being held hostage by the regime. It is believed that the Iranian regime managed to coax the ship off course and into their territorial waters using a new technique called ‘spoofing’, whereby a ship’s navigational systems are tricked into thinking that they are on the correct course, when in reality they are being lured towards the shore like a digital siren.

Over the last few years, Iran has increasingly asserting its dominance in the region, especially when it comes to the vital maritime route through the Straits of Hormuz. The straits are a key navigational route for energy exports from the Middle East, with some 40% of the world’s oil and gas coming from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Iran. 

Whilst the UK is less dependent on Middle Eastern oil than Europe – we get 3% of our oil from the region compared to the EU’s 20% – there’s every chance we may come to depend on it more if Russia were to constrain its supply of oil and gas. In that far from implausible scenario, Iran could be in a position to hobble the European economy. 

Of course, Iran’s influence in the region now extends further than just the Gulf, with its proxies fighting in conflicts across the Middle East. In Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. The conflict in Yemen is the one that perhaps poses the most immediate threat to trade, with Houthi rebels pushing the UN-recognised government back towards the port city of Aden. Aden, a former British territory, is of particular strategic importance as it sits at the Bab-el-Mandeb Straits which connect the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea, and ultimately offer access to the Suez Canal.

Should the Iranian-backed Houthis succeed in their aim of overthrowing the Yemeni government, which until recently had Western military support, it would put shipping heading towards Europe in a dangerous position – especially given that China has established a naval presence on the opposite side of the straits, in Djibouti. 

In my recent report for New Direction Foundation for European Reform, I point out that this is not something to be taken lightly. When the Suez Canal was blocked by the Ever Given in January of this year it cost an astonishing $9.9bn a day to the global economy. This is before taking into account the disruption to global supply chains and energy flows that followed. A total of 13 million barrels worth of crude oil in 24 tankers was held up, most of destined for Europe.

The threat posed to global trade from rogue actors such as Iran, Russia and China. Unless the Western world takes a proactive role in preventing such disruption, by asserting their position as protectors of global free trade, we risk a situation in which hostile powers could simply turn off the tap when it comes to the flow of goods. 

And whilst some might claim that it isn’t in the interest of China or Iran to block trade, consider this; in the weeks following the disruption of trade through Suez both nations signed a memorandum on enhanced economic and defence cooperation. Tehran signed up to become part of the Chinese ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, which will see goods travel from the Far East through Iran on their way to the West. The alternatives to Suez are already here.

What should the UK be doing about this?

The answer is to expand its ‘Global Britain’ policies, not least by following the advice of Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the Commons Defence Committee, and expanding our naval capacity. An expanded Royal Navy would be in a position to take on a leading role in protecting navigation rights of key routes and containing the threat from Iran. 

The expansion of the HMS Jufair naval facility in Bahrain over the last three years means that Britain has a chance to take a real frontline role in the protecting trade. In many ways doing so would fill a gap left by the United States as it withdraws from the region, while the EU has shown only a tepid interest in stepping in, despite its interests in this part of the world.

Likewise, the construction of the UK Joint Logistics Support Base in the Al Duqm port in Oman offers a strategic base of operations on the other side of the Straits of Hormuz. Britain’s strong presence in the region, especially if leading allies from the Gulf and Europe, would provide a strong means of defending global trade, and containing the spread of Iran. 

The policies needed are clear: what we need now the political willpower to achieve them.

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Robert Tyler is the Senior Policy Advisor at New Direction Foundation for European Reform based in Brussels. Prior to that he worked in the European Parliament on Counter Terrorism and Foreign Policy.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.