John Bolton, White House national security adviser and notorious Iraq-era hawk, is a man on a mission. Given broad latitude over policy by Donald Trump, he is widely held to be driving the US confrontation with Iran. And in his passionate bid to tame Tehran, Bolton cares little who gets hurt – even if collateral damage includes a close ally such as Britain.
So when Bolton heard British Royal Marines had seized an Iranian oil tanker off Gibraltar on America’s Independence Day, his joy was unconfined. “Excellent news: UK has detained the supertanker Grace I laden with Iranian oil bound for Syria in violation of EU sanctions,” he exulted on Twitter.
Bolton’s delighted reaction suggested the seizure was a surprise. But accumulating evidence suggests the opposite is true, and that Bolton’s national security team was directly involved in manufacturing the Gibraltar incident. The suspicion is that Conservative politicians, distracted by picking a new prime minister, jockeying for power, and preoccupied with Brexit, stumbled into an American trap.
In short, it seems, Britain was set up.
The consequences of the Gibraltar affair are only now becoming clear. The seizure of Grace I led directly to Friday’s capture by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards of a British tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz. Although it has not made an explicit link, Iran had previously vowed to retaliate for Britain’s Gibraltar “piracy”. Now it has its revenge.
As a result, Britain has been plunged into the middle of an international crisis it is ill-prepared to deal with. The timing could hardly be worse. An untested prime minister, presumably Boris Johnson, will enter Downing Street this week. Britain is on the brink of a disorderly exit from the EU, alienating its closest European partners. And its relationship with Trump’s America is uniquely strained.
Much of this angst could have been avoided. Britain opposed Trump’s decision to quit the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the trigger for today’s crisis. It has watched with alarm as the Trump-Bolton policy of “maximum pressure”, involving punitive sanctions and an oil embargo, has radicalised the most moderate Iranians.
Yet even as Britain backed EU attempts to rescue the nuclear deal, Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt, foreign secretary, tried to have it both ways – to keep Trump sweet. They publicly supported Washington’s complaints about Iran’s “destabilising” regional activities and missile programme, and berated Iran when it bypassed agreed nuclear curbs.
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