Former government officials don’t often produce reports that call for revolutionizing failed foreign policies. But that’s exactly what’s happened in Britain. The Lords International Relations Select Committee – consisting of former cabinet ministers, senior foreign policy advisers, and diplomats – concluded that the UK government should not rely too heavily on the “mercurial and unpredictable” Trump administration, and should completely redraw its approach to the Middle East. They were most explicit on Iran: “It is in the UK’s interests to pursue a better relationship with Iran, and we recommend that this should be a key priority.” This is striking for three reasons.
First, the report hints at a disconnect between rhetoric and reality regarding Britain’s approach to the Iran nuclear deal. It states in no uncertain terms: “The interests of the UK Government are clear. The UK should continue to support the Iran nuclear deal, whether or not it is supported by the U.S. It will have to work closely with its European partners, and Russia and China, to ensure the sustainability of the deal. The UK must also be more transparent and vocal in its support, especially within the UNSC.”
While Theresa May has paid lip service to preserving the JCPOA, her government’s actions are chipping away at the durability of the deal. For example, Iran utilized mechanisms in the JCPOA to request approval for purchasing 950 tonnes of uranium ore. All parties to the nuclear deal approved the request – except Britain. According to Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization: “Five of the members of the committee overseeing the (nuclear deal) have given their written approval, but Britain changed its mind at the last moment,” likely to curry favor with the Trump administration and Persian Gulf nations.
The Lords committee report says America under Trump “has taken positions [on Iran] that are unconstructive and could even escalate the conflict,” and “there is a dangerous escalatory logic to the U.S. approach.” As it stands, the same can be said about tangible actions being taken by the British government. To that end, there are other aspects of UK government policy that put the durability of the nuclear deal in danger. On the issue of banking sanctions, this is clear cut.
The committee suggests that Britain and Europe ease banking regulations to open up new sources of finance for Iran, even if America will not follow suit. The report notes this “would make it more attractive for Iran to persevere with the JCPOA, however unhelpful U.S. actions may be,” and highlights why such measures are critical: “[The U.S.] is also unlikely to take any steps to facilitate more effective sanctions relief to Iran. This will be a grave impediment to the sustainability of the [JCPOA] and it will mean that Iran’s ongoing frustration with opening Western markets will continue.”
To hear senior Iranian officials tell it, Britain is doing the opposite, refusing to process Iran-related payments through its central bank – despite Germany already setting a precedent for doing so. It’s no secret why big banks continue to refuse processing of Iran-related transactions: The ban on dollar U-turn transactions; Relations with American banks having a chilling effect on the willingness of British banks to handle Iranian payments; and the prospect of new sanctions legislation from Congress. Thus, verbal support for trade with Iran is not matched by firm action and solid policy that is pushed through by the UK government.
Precisely because Trump is “mercurial and unpredictable,” the committee is not unreasonable to note that he has the potential to further destabilize the Middle East. For that reason, its report calls for “a new mindset in policy circles” that questions long-standing UK policy of external, rather than internal, actors dominating the region. To that end, it asserts that while addressing policy differences between London and Tehran, Britain “will also have to recognize that Iran has legitimate security interests and needs to be recognized as having a role as a regional power.”
In practice, however, British policy in the region has largely strayed in the opposite direction. In an effort to beef up its “security reassurances” to Persian Gulf countries, there has been no discernible push by the UK government for Saudi-Iran dialogue to reduce regional tensions, never mind incorporate Iran into the region’s security framework. Instead, Britain is mostly silent – except for Yemen, where it unequivocally backs an indiscriminate Saudi bombardment of Yemen that has produced famine and strengthened Al-Qaeda, while highlighting Iran’s support for the Houthis that is neither at the same level nor game-changing in nature.
Since the JCPOA’s inception, Congress has repeatedly tried to kill it through a series of provocations with Iran. Today, there does not appear to be a President in the White House willing to exert the political will and capital necessary to protect it. Thus far, the Trump administration has repeatedly threatened to abandon it. Britain must make it clear to America that it cannot get away with abandoning the JCPOA and blaming Iran for its collapse. To that end, a group of respected British voices have charted a sound path forward. Her Majesty’s Government would be wise to take heed.Back to top