Boris Johnson picked a hell of a week to become prime minister.
Debates over the path forward on Brexit have dominated the leadership contest between Johnson—the overwhelming favorite—and his rival, Jeremy Hunt. But the new prime minister, who is due to be announced on Tuesday, is going to face an even more pressing issue when he takes over this week: an escalating standoff with Iran.
On Friday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, a strategically vital shipping route off the country’s coast. The ship’s 23 crew members—none are British, and the majority are Indian—are currently being detained on board the ship, which has been brought to port.
Iran’s Guardian Council has justified the seizure as a “reciprocal action” following the British Royal Marines’ seizure of an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar earlier this month. Several Western governments believe the tanker was carrying oil to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government in violation of international sanctions. The U.S. government reportedly asked the U.K. to detain the ship.
The tanker standoff is happening in the context of the slow-motion collapse of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which began last year when President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the multilateral agreement and began enforcing sanctions not only on U.S. entities trading with Iran but international ones as well.
Iran announced at the beginning of July that it had exceeded the low-enriched uranium stockpile limit included in the deal, and it would begin surpassing other limits as well. This is widely seen as an effort to put pressure on the Europeans to deliver the sanctions relief that Iran was promised under the original agreement. European governments are still committed to preserving the deal and are urging Iran to get back in compliance. But given the U.S. dollar’s predominant role in international trade, there’s not that much that much they can do to shield companies from U.S. sanctions. A convoluted barter system has been developed that allows goods to be traded between Europe and Iran without dollars changing hands, but it’s unlikely to deliver even the level of trade Iran experienced before the sanctions were put back in place.
While Trump, for now at least, seems intent on avoiding direct military confrontation, tensions are continuing to rise. The U.S. claimed last week to have shot down an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz—Iran denied it. Iran also claimed to have arrested 17 spies working for the CIA—the U.S. denied it.
Wary of provoking a catastrophic full-blown military confrontation with the U.S., Iran has mostly avoided direct attacks on U.S. facilities or citizens as it retaliates for the ongoing effects of U.S. sanctions. This means that U.S. allies, including the U.K., will likely bear the brunt of this retaliation.
All of this puts Britain in a very difficult situation during what was already a very complicated political week. The government of outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to announce its response Monday, but it has few options to respond with Iran already under heavy economic sanctions. Iran hawks are calling for Johnson to cut loose from what they see as European attempts at appeasement and join the American “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
This might seem like something that would appeal to Johnson. His whole campaign for the job has been predicated on a vow to separate from Europe and forge a closer relationship with the Trump administration—sometimes to an embarrassing extent.
But when it comes to Iran, Johnson’s outlook has been a little more “European.”
In 2018, Johnson, who was then foreign minister, traveled to Washington to attempt to persuade Trump to stay in the deal—a diplomatic offensive that included an op-ed in the New York Times and an appearance on the president’s favorite TV show, Fox & Friends. After Trump pulled out, Johnson expressed the British government’s regret in a speech to Parliament and stated that it remained committed to implementing the deal.
In a televised debate last week, Johnson said he would not support U.S. military action against Iran, saying it was not “a sensible option for us in the West.” Jeremy Hunt, who, as the current foreign secretary, is already deeply involved in the crisis, was vaguer in his answer.
Granted, Johnson has never been averse to changing his positions as political winds change, and he could still seek to align his position with the Trump administration’s. But in this case, that’s complicated by the fact that it’s often hard to discern what the Trump administration’s position is. The president is plainly frustrated with his own hawkish advisers, even as he continues to dial up pressure that could lead to a direct confrontation.
Other European governments might hope that Johnson can use his rapport with Trump to talk the president into a less confrontational position, but that seems like a long shot given that neither he nor the similarly chummy French president, Emmanuel Macron, had much luck during the Iran deal debate in 2018. It’s also worth noting that Iran was the source of what may have been the worst blunder of Johnson’s tenure as foreign secretary.
In 2017, Johnson inaccurately told a parliamentary committee that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual citizen and Thomson Reuters Foundation employee who was arrested while visiting Iran, had been “teaching people journalism” there. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, her family, and her employers maintain that she was just visiting family, but the Iranian prosecutors seized on Johnson’s remarks during her trial as evidence that she had been working to overthrow the government. Johnson apologized for his “mistake,” but Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains in custody—her husband says she’s being chained to a bed in a psychiatric ward after she was briefly hospitalized following a hunger strike.
It’s not the sort of incident that bodes well for his ability to extricate his country from a very tricky diplomatic standoff.