Whilst, quite rightly, Prime Minster Theresa May is chairing a meeting of COBRA this morning to discuss the illegal hijacking late last week of a UK registered oil tanker in the Strat of Hormuz and also that the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt will make a statement on the current status of the situation to the House of Commons this afternoon, I for one take the view that the Iranian tanker hi-jacking is not, as some are seeking to suggest, a diplomatic test for the next British prime minister alone but moreover, a serious diplomatic test for the western world.
While the two sperate incidents that have taken place and that led to the present impasse – the seizure by the Royal Marines of the Iranian vessel Grace 1 accused of sanction busting and over the weekend, the tit for tat hi-jacking of the British registered but Swedish owned and crewed vessel named ‘Stena Impero’ are, as far as we are led to believe, linked to the well assessed initial UK led actions, I am in little doubt that finding an acceptable diplomatic solution will require the combined efforts of British, US and EU governments.
How and why these two separate events occurred and whether they could have been better handled or prevented is secondary now to finding a solution acceptable to all and that releases both vessels and their respective crews from a worrying situation that they find themselves in.
For the Iranians who have up to now continued up to now to have the support from UK and EU governments for the nuclear deal signed by them together with the US government under President Obama back in 2016 it would, in my view, be a great shame if the current situation is allowed to procrastinate or worsen. I do not believe the Iranians want military conflict and neither do I believe that the western allies want this either.
Believing that the Stena owned vessel was British owned because it happened to be British registered albeit that this vessel was actually owned by a Swedish company and crewed by Swedish nationals may not have been known by the Iranians but with Sweden a member of the EU – although not of NATO – the current situation can in my view only be resolved by combined international diplomatic action.
While it is unfortunate that the current diplomatic situation takes place in the wake of a significant change about to occur in Downing Street and Cabinet this week, a new prime minister, whoever that is will, through whoever he chooses as his Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary need to bring all sides in the current situation together fast.
That, despite of what media believes to be a worsening of our relations with President Trump following the leaking of private emails between the former UK Ambassador to the US and his civil service boss here in the UK, Sir Mark Sedwill, the US must be fully involved not only in finding a diplomatic solution to this crisis but also in ensuring that the shipping is able to move freely through international waters in what is known as the Straits of Hormuz.
EU involvement not only because of Sweden but because member countries such as France, Germany and the UK have, unlike the US, continued to back the 2016 nuclear deal, is undoubtedly necessary.
Whatever the outcome of this regrettable situation we must be clear ourselves that neither Brexit, the change this week in UK leadership and cabinet nor the presupposed inconvenience and damage caused by the leaking of private views expressed by the former UK Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch on the Trump administration can or will be allowed to interfere in finding a proper solution to this regrettable affair.
In my view, just as they have always done, even if they have been temporarily damaged, the enduring strength of the US/UK relationship will rise above the separate and unfortunate events of two weeks ago. Similarly, despite Brexit, I believe that the EU and UK Government will come together and be at one on resolving the Iranian issue just as they will again on other diplomatic issues that are bound to occur in a post Brexit world.
Diplomacy is and must be the way forward to this spat with Iran and we must redouble efforts to bring all parties back to accepting the Iranian nuclear agreement. Starving Iran through the permanency of sanctions is not an acceptable answer and neither should it be seen as a solution.
Separately, western allies must agree a strategy that ensures maritime protection and freedom to sail in international waters. The Royal Navy has done a superb job in providing a level of protection through HMS Montrose and other ships but it is clear that Britain cannot do this alone and will need the US to provide additional support. I hope that we, in the form of the new PM, very quickly asks for that support from the US and that it is granted – without of course escalating the current regrettable and dangerous situation.
Finally let me say this – despite what one often reads to the contrary, while national leadership is provided by our political leaders the work of diplomacy is conducted behind the scenes not by our politicians but by senior civil servants and trained diplomats. The UK, despite massive cuts to Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget still has enough expertise required to find a way through this crisis.
CHW (London – 22nd July 2019)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785