Whether it Likes It or Not, Europe is Being Pushed and Pulled into America’s Iran Policy

August 1, 2019

Boris Johnson, Britain’s newly appointed prime minister, might have wished for a calmer start to his time in office, but recent events in the Persian Gulf leave him and his new cabinet a serious strategic headache. A tit-for-tat escalation between the United Kingdom and Iran has led to a Mexican standoff where both sides have impounded tankers, and their bilateral relations look set for a period of deep freeze. In response London has put forward a plan to launch a European-led maritime security operation in the Gulf to police shipping lanes and ensure further incidents do not happen.

The inescapable consequence of the tanker incident is that the United Kingdom and the Europeans will be dragged toward a position on Iran that is closer to that of the United States. The Gulf is going to become more militarized, and both Europe and the United States will have to rely on each other to keep the peace in an area of global importance that is now highly unstable. And so, deploying European military assets and manpower into the Gulf region will lock the Europeans into a U.S. security architecture out of which they cannot break out. Indeed the more Europe and the United States cooperate on Gulf security, the less likely it will be for the E3 to maintain a wall between their disagreement with Washington over the nuclear deal, and their increasing lock step coordination with Washington on constraining Iranian activities that destabilize the region.

Amid a backdrop of rising tension between the United States and Iran as a result of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy against Iran’s economy, the escalation between the United Kingdom and Iran couldn’t have come at a worse time. London didn’t sign on to Washington’s tough approach, and as part of the E3 grouping alongside France and Germany, the United Kingdom has strongly supported the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the Iran nuclear deal — and to this day Johnson remains committed to its implementation. But this game of keeping the JCPOA alive while ratcheting up military deployments against Iran is self-defeating. Iran misbehaves regionally because of pressure on the nuclear file, and nuclear proliferation and regional security questions are one and the same issue, no matter how hard Western diplomats and negotiators try to pretend that they are not. The entangling of these two issues under the Trump administration was, in a sense, a re-imposition of political realities. Decoupling one issue from the other was always an impossible task.



Until recently, Iran knew that it could play the E3 off of the United States. In the face of mounting American pressure, the Iranians maintained a policy of quiet adherence to the nuclear deal. The aim of the quietist policy was to expose a deep split between Washington and its European allies — an aim that was more or less achieved. But as American sanctions have piled on the pressure, Iranian behavior has begun to cause numerous headaches for western policy makers. Iranian proxies have become more active in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, and Iranian disruption activity in the waters of the Gulf has become a serious challenge for commercial shipping in the area. It is this disruptive behaviour above all others that has brought the United States and the E3 into closer alignment.

This latest incident, triggered by Iran’s capture of the British flagged tanker the Stena Impero, has sparked debate for an increased European security presence in the Gulf region. For decades, European powers have played a role in Gulf security, but for the most part these countries have served as complements to American hard power. Because the British could not ensure the security of one of their own tankers there is growing support for more European naval vessels to be present in Gulf waters to protect shipping during times of high tension. Given that Washington has made it clear to London that it must take responsibility for its own merchant vessels, the UK appears to have no alternative than to deploy European naval assets to the Gulf in greater numbers.

A European flotilla is a nice idea in theory. Given London’s tanker conundrum, the more states that the United Kingdom can get to back its idea, the more the strategic and tactical cost will be for Iran in the long run. London and Tehran will eventually swap tankers once the dust has settled and both sides can save face. But Britain will want to create an outcome that places Iran in a more difficult strategic position than it was before this whole tanker saga began, and to do that London will have to increase its naval presence around Iranian waters.

Given that there is a significant British and French presence in the Gulf, any European operation would be led by London and Paris. And they would largely bear responsibility for the planning, execution, and logistical coordination with the United States to make such an endeavour possible. However, this idea also runs the risk of the French and British becoming so dominant in the project that they are effectively the only two countries involved. This is hardly an all-encompassing European effort, but one that will nevertheless signal to Tehran that the strategic game has changed.

There is a problem, however, which concerns how this mission both complements and deconflicts with the substantial U.S. naval presence in the region. It is difficult to foresee how the Europeans will be able to maintain a separate mission from the United States in a relatively small passage of water such as the Strait of Hormuz, and slightly paradoxical given that American logistical support will be critical for a European mission to succeed.

London’s aim is to signal to Iran that the E3 view Iran’s recent behaviour as highly problematic, but this position is undermined if European-led security operations are heavily reliant upon the United States. That the pro-JCPOA Europeans are looking for some strategic daylight between their position and that of the Trump administration is one thing; trying to manage a separate JCPOA track and a separate regional security track from Washington seems almost impossible given America’s quasi-hegemonic security presence in the region.

Tehran will undoubtedly view these recent developments with bemusement. Iran has grown tired of European promises to preserve the JCPOA, which have more or less led to naught; the added pressure of a European security mission close to Iranian territorial waters is hardly likely to reinforce the view that the E3 is a viable negotiating partner. While it is necessary for an increased European presence in the area to ensure a smooth passage for ships transiting through Hormuz, it is very hard to see how Iran would not view this increased presence as driven by American intentions, and by extension the Trump administration’s desire to break the JCPOA and force Iran to renegotiate under different terms. And so, by acting tougher on questions of regional security, European states may well be undermining the JCPOA, the very thing they are trying to save.

There is no way around this conundrum. London cannot risk looking weak at a time of domestic instability, and especially not in an area of the world so critically important to U.K. foreign policy interests. The ships are already on their way, and so for the coming years an increased presence in the Gulf is going to be a fact of life. In 2015, the United Kingdom committed itself to large scale deployments “East of Suez” by launching its Gulf strategy, a 30-year program built upon an increased defence presence in the Gulf. It would be hypocritical in the extreme to formally commit to the Gulf region and its security, only to not commit the moment the Gulf becomes insecure.

The path ahead is difficult. London (not to mention Paris and Berlin) does not want to align itself with American policy on the JCPOA, but the omens all point toward that being the most likely outcome. The European position on the JCPOA weakens by the day, and the current climate of tension between London and Tehran does nothing to help the position of those who believe that diplomacy is the most effective way to solve this current crisis. The past two months have only bolstered the position of those in London who believe that relations with Iran should be conducted from a position of strength. While diplomacy is always preferable, sadly this can only be done with a far greater military presence in the Gulf to backstop not only London’s position, but that of the entire E3.

The increased muddling of issues around the nuclear file into the regional security file makes for an altogether more difficult problem. With so many strands of tension now existing between Tehran and the United States, it is becoming impossible to unpick one set of problems and isolate them from the other set of problems. The result is a strategic Gordian knot that will require an enormous gesture of goodwill (most likely from Trump himself) to reset the problem, which is unlikely to be forthcoming. In the meantime, the E3 will need to get used to playing their part in this increasing struggle, and ultimately taking America’s side, even if they don’t want to.



Michael Stephens is the research fellow for Middle East Studies at RUSI in London. Follow him on Twitter @MikeRStephens.

Image: Royal Navy