11 July 2019

It’s time for Britain to get tough with Iran

By Simon Waldman

It took the protection of HMS Montrose – a Royal Navy frigate – to prevent Iranian forces from intercepting a British oil tanker along the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway that lies between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, which exports the majority the Middle Eastern oil.

Although Iran denied breaking international law by trying to seize the commercial vessel, the Islamic Republic’s attempt at international piracy was no surprise. Britain was already on high alert after Iran’s supposedly moderate President Hassan Rouhani warned of “consequences” after Royal Marines in Gibraltar helped impound an Iranian vessel loaded with oil on its way to Syria – a breach of international sanctions.

Britain will be looking to diffuse tensions, but Downing Street needs to be firm with Tehran. It was Britain’s mollification, appeasement some might say, which got London into this mess in the first place.

In July 2015, Britain was a signatory of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, together with Germany, Russia, China, France and the US. The deal placed limits on Iran’s nuclear energy programme in return for lifting international sanctions. At least initially, it was hoped that the agreement would pave the way for greater cooperation between Iran and the West.

Britain has taken some major steps in that direction. In August 2015, for example, one month after the JCPOA was signed, Britain reopened its embassy in Tehran. Only three-and-a-half years earlier in 2011, the embassy was closed after it was stormed and ransacked by a 1,000 strong angry mob. In scenes reminiscent of the 1979 attack on the US embassy in Tehran, documents were seized, offices were vandalised and the Union Jack (which was burned) was replaced by the Iranian flag. Iranian security officers looked the other way while the Vienna Convention, which guarantees the sanctity of international embassies, was brazenly violated.

For Britain to have reopened its embassy three and a half years later was a significant gesture. The UK was risking the safety of its personnel, a move which Canada still hasn’t made after its embassy was shut in 2012.

However, this major British overture was ignored. Just months later, MI5 found three tons of explosives at a North West London home, after being tipped off by Israel’s Mossad. It turned out that the Iranian-linked terrorist group Hezbollah was planning a major attack against Israeli interests on British shores. Downing St not only looked the other way, but it remained silent and covered it up.

Then, in April 2016, British-Iranian citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, was arrested, detained and sentenced for espionage, a charge Britain denies and international organisations believe are unfounded. Zaghari-Ratcliffe is being held in Iran’s infamous Evin Prison, a notorious modern-day dungeon reserved for political prisoners. So far the Foreign Office’s soft approach has failed to get Zaghari-Ratcliffe released and reunited with her family.

The cheek of the charges against Zaghari-Ratcliffe is compounded by the very real suspicion that Iranian spies are intimidating exiles living in Britain. It was recently reported that Iranian spies are armed and have openly threatened Iranian dissidents on the streets of Scotland.

In May 2018, instead of siding with its transatlantic partner after Donald Trump refused to continue to certify the JCPOA, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May chose to express Britain’s commitment to deal. Together with the EU, Britain signed a joint declaration to work towards a mechanism to block the impact of the reimposed US sanctions.

However, recent developments have shown that London’s conciliatory approach has failed. Instead, Britain needs to take a more forceful attitude – and it has options at its disposal.

Britain should seek a declaration of support and condemnation of Iran by the European Commission and Parliament. Meanwhile, Britain should enhance its naval presence by the Strait of Hormuz until it can be certain that its interests are safe.

Recently, the US designated Iran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) as a terrorist entity. Britain should do the same, if not the IRGC as a whole, then at least its special operations unit, the Quds Force, linked to a number of terrorist groups and outrages across the globe.

Meanwhile, Britain should recall its ambassador to Tehran for consultations and at a very minimum give Tehran’s man in London a good dressing down. It is also time for the Government to reconsider the nature of diplomatic ties with Tehran and whether it wishes to continue its support for the JCPOA, especially as moving towards the US position could earn Britain some needed brownie points with the White House.

Regardless of what Britain chooses to do, the Britain must abandon its soft approach. Not only has it failed, but it has put British interests in danger. Instead, England needs to send a stronger message to the Islamic Republic.

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Dr Simon A. Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King's College London.