Britain’s Power Play in the Persian Gulf

The United Kingdom hopes to get European countries to join it in a maritime coalition to protect vulnerable tankers near Iran.

By Lara Seligman and Keith Johnson, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
The British warship HMS Montrose is seen docked in the Cypriot port of Limassol on Feb. 3, 2014.
The British warship HMS Montrose is seen docked in the Cypriot port of Limassol on Feb. 3, 2014. -/AFP/Getty Images

In calling this week for a European naval coalition to provide security for commercial ships in the vital Strait of Hormuz, the United Kingdom is seeking to both uphold the nearly moribund nuclear deal with Iran and still push back against Tehran’s seizure last week of a British-flagged tanker.

The British proposal is seen as a partial rebuke of the Trump administration, as outgoing Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt stressed that the European naval coalition would not form part of the U.S. campaign of imposing maximum pressure on Iran, which includes the deployment of naval vessels, troops, and aircraft to the region.

The mission “will not be part of the U.S. maximum pressure policy on Iran because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement,” Hunt told the House of Commons on Monday, days after Iran seized a British-flagged vessel, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz.

The proposal seems to have traction within the U.K. government and among European allies. But it’s not yet clear whether the ascension Wednesday of a new prime minister who appears keen to cozy up to U.S. President Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, will scuttle the effort. Hunt and Defense Secretary Penny Mordaunt formally resigned Wednesday.

“Maybe this was Theresa May’s parting shot as she leaves No. 10,” said Jim Townsend, a former senior U.S. Defense Department official. On Thursday, the new British government said that for now, Royal Navy warships would escort British-flagged vessels through the Strait of Hormuz; the first such mission was carried out overnight Wednesday.

New U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, in his first remarks to the press, downplayed any possible breach with the United Kingdom over the pan-European proposal, saying the two maritime coalitions are meant to be “complementary.”

“Most countries who transit the Strait [of Hormuz] should have an interest in this and want to provide some type of forces to again ensure navigation of the strait, freedom of the seas, and deter provocative behavior,” Esper said. “Whether we do that as one big group or as subgroups, I think as long as it complements there will clearly be coordination.”

So far, Britain’s proposal has gotten a cautious but promising response from other European nations. France, Italy, and Denmark have said they broadly agree with the idea, while countries such as Germany and Spain have had discussions with British officials. (Germany, for its part, appears to have ruled out the dispatch of any German naval vessels as part of the mission.)

That is a warmer welcome than that given to a U.S. plan announced in June for a multinational force to provide maritime security through Hormuz, dubbed “Operation Sentinel.”

And politics seems to play a part in those calculations: Britain and other European countries have fought to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and have tried to distance themselves from Washington’s unilateral departure from the deal and maximum pressure on Iran, including a near-total ban on Iranian oil exports and the designation of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.

Last month, Trump called off retaliatory military strikes, just minutes before launch, that would have killed more than 100 Iranians—plans the United States reportedly did not share with Britain ahead of time.

“It’s really a political point that these countries are trying to make,” said Becca Wasser, an analyst with the Rand Corp. “This is really the U.K. sticking by its guns when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal and also putting its money where its mouth is by ensuring the security of its own flagged tankers.”

As Britain and other European countries seek to put together a maritime coalition that can improve security for tankers and other commercial vessels passing through the vulnerable waters, two big questions arise: Do Britain and Europe have the ships to do the job, and do they have the political will to dispatch them to the shores of Iran despite vehement warnings from Tehran?

It’s not entirely clear what type of maritime mission Britain has in mind, but naval experts said it wouldn’t resemble the convoy-escorting operations of World War II or even the more recent “tanker war” between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s that saw Western warships escort foreign-flagged tankers through a war zone.

“The question is: What do you want to do there? You don’t have the means to do a replay of the 1980s,” said Jeremy Stöhs, an expert on European navies at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University.

The once mighty British Royal Navy certainly does not have enough surface ships to do the job on its own, with its fleet of frigates and destroyers having shrunk to fewer than 20 vessels, most of which are being refit or otherwise committed. The one British frigate in the Strait of Hormuz, the HMS Montrose, was by itself unable to prevent the seizure of the Stena Impero. That makes European participation vital.

“The real problem is the availability of escorts,” said Geoffrey Till, the chairman of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies at King’s College London. “That’s the critical thing—Britain’s ability to involve European partners in the process.”

But Europe’s even smaller navies are also stretched thin, Townsend noted. “I don’t know if they have enough surface vessels to carry on a long-term, sustainable escort mission like this,” he said.

Operationally, if they can scrape together enough ships, Britain and other European navies could handle the job of bolstering maritime security—they’ve been doing that for more than a decade in multiple operations off the coast of Somalia, and both France and Britain have naval bases nearby. Many European navies have experience in the waters near the Arabian Sea and are used to dealing with low-intensity conflicts like hunting pirates and ensuring the delivery of humanitarian aid.

But one thing is sending warships to hunt pirate skiffs with little controversy or danger, and another thing is to dispatch European vessels to waters near Iran that could be seen by Tehran as part of a Western effort to choke it off entirely.

“All European navies have a great deal of experience dealing with moderate-level threats. The problem is, this might not be a moderate-level threat, and some countries might not have that risk appetite,” Till said.

And Britain’s prospective partners face other political problems, as well. Few want to be seen as participating in the U.S. campaign of applying maximum pressure, and despite Hunt’s protestations that the planned coalition would be separate from U.S. mobilization, Iran may not appreciate the difference.

What’s more, as Britain prepares to leave the European Union and hopes to play a bigger, more independent role on the global stage, the maritime proposal is part of the United Kingdom’s renewed push to reestablish itself as a security leader in the Persian Gulf.

“The U.K. over the last few years has been looking to reintroduce itself to the Gulf security architecture,” said Melissa Dalton, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “So there is a crisis that’s prompting it, but it is happening in this broader contextual trendline.”

With relations between Europe and Britain already strained, there’s not a whole lot of appetite to get involved in something that many Europeans think is a mess of Britain’s own making. British marines this month seized an Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar, accusing it of shipping oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions. Then Iran retaliated by apprehending a British-flagged tanker last week.

“This is all kind of a tit for tat between the U.K. and Iran,” Stöhs said. Europeans are asking themselves, he said, “is there a real danger for international shipping, or is it just a power play between the U.K. and Iran? And do we need to commit all these capabilities to the region?”

Britain doesn’t just have strained ties with Europe. The so-called special relationship with Washington has also been tested in recent weeks. After a series of leaked memos revealed that British Ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch had called the White House “inept,” “insecure,” and “incompetent,” Trump blasted out a flurry of furious tweets mocking May and describing Darroch as “wacky” and a “very stupid guy,” declaring that he would no longer work with the British ambassador, who soon quit.

Then on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested the U.K. must be responsible for its own ships in the strait. Although he clarified that “the U.S. has a responsibility to do its part,” the Brits may have perceived his comments as a snub, experts said.

“It sounded like he said, ‘You’re on your own,’” Townsend said. “The U.K. got a bit of a rebuff from the U.S. and so pivoted to Europe.”

Britain’s plan for a maritime coalition isn’t the only one that remains fuzzy: Details of what Operation Sentinel will look like also remain unclear, and it may end up being a U.S.-only operation.

Esper would not commit to providing a U.S. Navy escort to each vessel transiting through the strait. Depending on the circumstances, the added security could be provided by an “overhead capability,” presumably a military aircraft, or a warship operating in the vicinity.

“I don’t necessarily mean that every U.S.-flagged ship going through the strait has a destroyer right behind it,” said Esper, adding that he will travel to U.S. Central Command headquarters next week to hash out the details of the plan.

But like Pompeo, he also seemed to suggest that each nation must be responsible for its own ships.

“The Brits are trying to escort their ships, we will escort our ships to the degree that the risk demands it, and I assume that other countries will escort their ships,” Esper said.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP