Main Image Credit Courtesy of Abed Ghasemi/Wikimedia Commons
A fundamental rethink of the UK’s approach to Iran is both needed and timely.
A lot has changed when it comes to Iran since the adoption of the UK’s National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in 2015. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is hanging by a thread; US–Iran tensions have spilled over leading to direct attacks on the UK’s interests and personnel; and, finally, in light of Brexit and the US ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Tehran, the UK faces significant challenges in finding ways to affect Iran’s behaviour without either becoming a target itself or being ineffective.
While the UK’s strategic priorities on Iran have largely remained the same, the Integrated Review should provide an opportunity for the government to ensure the country’s policy is attuned to the changed global security environment.
The Changed Global Security Environment
The UK objectives on Iran remain to prevent the country from developing a nuclear capability, reduce its destabilising activities in the region, and incentivise it to play a constructive role in the rules-based international system. These interests, which shaped the UK policy on Iran for decades, are unlikely to change because of Brexit. All these goals, however, seem much more challenging today than five years ago.
First, the withdrawal of the US from the nuclear deal known as the JCPOA and the consequent decision by Tehran to reduce its compliance to the deal have significantly increased the proliferation and arms control threat posed to the UK.
Second, when it comes to Iran’s destabilising activities, as a result of US–Iran tensions, the threat to the UK’s security has significantly increased over the past year. Its interests and personnel have been directly targeted, including through the seizing of the Stena Impero, a British-flagged oil tanker, and the killing of a British soldier in Iraq.
Finally, the UK also faces more challenges today when it comes to exerting influence on Iran. While the UK continues to share its interests with European partners (particularly France and Germany), the departure from the EU means that coordination on tools and mechanisms to affect Iranian behaviour might become harder. With the US, on the other hand, the UK faces the dilemma of maintaining a strategic alliance while not sharing the same goals and strategy on the Iran file. With limited tools to influence Iran alone, the UK will have to find ways to cooperate with traditional allies without, at the same time, losing sight of its sometimes clashing strategic objectives.
Given the new global security environment, when reviewing its foreign, defence and security policy on Iran, the UK should:
1. Invest in the JCPOA but plan for its potential collapse
The 2015 SDSR relied exclusively on the newly concluded JCPOA to pursue counterproliferation goals with Iran. The conviction was that the agreement was going to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme and the deal was (and still is) thus viewed as ‘vital for [the UK] national security and the shared security of our partners and allies’.
While the UK’s continued effort ‘to reboot the JCPOA’, together with the remaining parties to the deal (France, Germany, China and Russia), is therefore logical and likely to continue, the government should also prepare alternative ways to assuage its non-proliferation concerns and influence Iran’s behaviour.
The UK is in a position to continue exerting its influence on nuclear matters in institutions such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (where it is one of the 35 board members) and the UN Security Council (where it is a permanent member) to facilitate the adoption of measures preventing the weaponisation of the Iranian nuclear programme in the event of the JCPOA’s collapse. It should also ensure continued coordination with France and Germany even if the JCPOA cannot be revived. And, while coordination with the US on this issue will remain much more challenging, the UK should try to maintain its role as a bridge between Washington and the EU, given that a joint transatlantic approach increases the chances for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. And that may be less difficult should there be a change of guard in the White House after the November elections.
2. Invest in the UK’s capability for action without the US
The 2015 SDSR clearly outlined how competition between states could significantly impact the UK’s security and interests and draw the country or its allies into a military conflict.
Over the past year, the direct threat to UK interests and assets has increased as a result of US-Iran tensions. While the UK maintains its commitment to ‘hold Iran accountable for its destabilising and dangerous actions in the region’, this needs to be coupled with a more structured discussion about maintaining the proportionate measures to respond to any targeting of UK civilians or interests.
Both the 2018 National Security Capability Review and the 2015 SDSR outlined how military cooperation and interoperability with the US, through NATO, as well as combined operations in the Gulf and elsewhere, have long been perceived as the best ways to guarantee the UK's national security.
Still, military cooperation with the US in the Middle East also drastically increases the risk of UK troops, citizens or interests becoming the explicit targets of Iran’s destabilising activities in the region.
In the long run, the UK should thus invest in its defence and security and find ways to increase its capability for action without the US. And in the immediate term, the UK should instead invest in alternative ways of affecting Iranian behaviour, including by increasing the costs of its destabilising activities in the region.
3. Use sanctions strategically
In the 2015 SDSR, economic sanctions were described as being effective ‘as part of wider efforts to uphold agreements and laws, and inflict a cost on those who breach them’, including in the case of Iran.
Targeted sanctions against Iranian entities for nuclear-related, ballistic missile or regional activities are likely to continue to be one of the main tools at the UK’s disposal to advance its foreign policy objectives. However, because of Brexit, the UK currently finds itself, for the first time, in the position of designing its unilateral sanctions policy from scratch.
One of the main unintended consequences is that London will often have to align with the EU and/or the US, which, as bigger economic players, would enable the UK to maximise the impact of its sanctions policy on the targeted countries. Even though the UK has left the political structures of the EU, coordination on Iran is likely to continue, albeit not without challenges, given the shared interests and joint sanctions policy. Because of the maximum pressure campaign adopted by President Donald Trump, however, coordination with the US, or even the shaping of a successful unilateral sanctions policy on Iran, is likely to be more challenging. What is important is that the UK resists the temptation of forcefully aligning with its traditional allies in an attempt to exert more influence when this would mean jeopardising its overarching strategic objectives on Iran.
4. Leverage historic ties in the region to engage effectively
The 2015 SDSR advocated the need to engage with Iran, using the example of the JCPOA as a successful outcome of diplomacy.
Keeping the diplomatic door open to negotiate a peaceful way forward is and should continue to be the approach used by the UK to deal with Iran, not just when it comes to the nuclear issue but also to reduce the chances of a military escalation in the region.
While Iran has increased its destabilising activities over the past year, the risk that this could lead to military confrontation would be much higher if diplomatic ties were cut or reduced, as showcased by the outcome of tensions with the US.
Engagement should thus not constitute an end in itself. However, the UK should continue to ‘encourage [Iran] to de-escalate, and seek a path to an alternative future through diplomatic dialogue’.
In contrast to past approaches, the UK should leverage its historic links to actors in the region, particularly Oman and the UAE. It should seek ways to establish parallel channels of engagement beyond the JCPOA and EU-based ones. Oman and the UAE, for instance, have both the interest to avoid a military escalation in the region and the means to explore ways to incentivise Tehran. The UK should thus invest its resources on finding a more regional-based solution to the crisis to avoid the pitfalls of the past.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi
Senior Research Fellow
International Security Studies