“Today, the American soldier is in danger, tomorrow the European soldier could be in danger,” said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, indicating tensions now involve not only the United States, but Europe too which was previously more diplomatic in addressing Iran.

This came following the European Union signatories of the 2015 Joint Cooperation Plan of Action (JCPOA), namely France and Germany, announcing that they were triggering a diplomatic “dispute mechanism.” This leaves the deal which places nuclear program restrictions on Iran—close to its demise in the midst of heightened U.S.-Iran tensions. 

Iranian officials singled out Britain as Washington’s “partner in crime” days after the killing of Iran’s commander Qassem Soleimani. UK-Iran tensions have soured further since.

Iranian officials singled out Britain as Washington’s “partner in crime” days after the killing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Qassem Soleimani. UK-Iran tensions have soured further since. The UK Ambassador to Tehran was detained for encouraging the latest protests and later returned to Britain, while the UK once again escalated its naval presence in the Gulf the day after Soleimani’s assassination. 

Arguably, Britain’s ambivalent yet escalatory stance has been a factor in the rising tensions, balancing desires to revive the deal yet more keen to stay on Washington’s good side.  

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was re-elected in December, has further driven this incoherent stance on Iran. At times he has shown support for upholding the deal; at others he has stood by Trump’s aggressive stance – distinguishing the UK from its European counterparts and leaving it vulnerable to Washington’s influence. Britain declared it trusts the United States’ efforts to “defend” itself following Soleimani’s death, ignoring legality issues about the assassination. 

Boris Johnson declared on January 14 that he supports a new “Trump deal” for Iran that would effectively replace the JCPOA. Yet as Rouhani rejected the idea of a new agreement forged by Trump and criticized Britain for its backing, any such deal would likely be scrapped. 

Britain’s Escalatory Role Towards Tehran: Past and Present

Britain has progressively bolstered its navy and military presence in Iran since Trump quit the JCPOA  deal in May 2018, preparing for escalations and adding to the tensions. Furthermore, Britain increased its special forces presence in the Gulf in May 2019 soon after Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, and just a few months before a tit-for-tat oil tanker seizure where Britain had seized an Iranian tank passing through Gibraltar allegedly towards Syria. Far from taking a diplomatic stance, Britain stated that its forces stationed in the Gulf are in “a state of readiness,” should there be further escalation. 

In a period of insecurity, with Brexit approaching and while seeking to retain good ties with the United States, Britain has clearly pursued proliferation rather than de-escalation. 

Historically, Britain has played an interventionist role in Iran, distant from Europe and in line with the United States. It started in 1953 when then-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill encouraged Washington to support a coup against the Iranian President Mohammad Mossadegh. Under Margaret Thatcher, Britain also supplied weapons to Saddam Hussein, supporting his invasion of Iran in the 1980s, alongside America. Smaller reciprocal blows have occurred since, with Iranian leaders clearly bearing painful and negative images towards Britain’s past actions. 

Britain is clearly no longer a superpower but a subordinate to the whims of the United States.

Now, Britain is clearly no longer a superpower but a subordinate to the whims of the United States, having drifted towards Washington’s stance on Iran. Trump did not even inform the UK, which is supposedly the United States’ “greatest ally,” that they were targeting Soleimani. If anything, that implied that Britain was undervalued in this relationship.  

To be sure, some leading UK ministers are still opposed to escalation. In the wake of the current U.S.-Iran tensions, UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace stated that Britain may have to revise its future relations with the United States and look towards other allies.

“We are very dependent on American air cover and American intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets,” said Wallace. “We need to diversify our assets … we are going to have to make decisions that allow us to stand with a range of allies,” he added, indicating the desire to move away from Washington. This still shows there are voices within London who seek a more de-escalatory stance.

UK ministers were divided over the 2003 Iraq invasion too, which still left Britain prone to following Washington. Tony Blair, who followed George Bush’s lead in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, was also said to be a careerist who sought to appease Washington and those who could advance his career. Meaning that agreeing with the United States’ decision to go to war was a calculated choice for him.

Trump and Johnson are a similar pair to Bush and Blair; they tend to see eye-to-eye.

Trump and Johnson are a similar pair to Bush and Blair; they tend to see eye-to-eye. With Johnson staunchly pursuing a viable post-Brexit future for Britain, trade ties with the U.S. is becoming ever more important. Such a reality has also driven Britain from European political stances, and it’s clear the country is moving closer to Washington on Iran. 

Economic Pressure on Britain, Europe

Britain approved the U.S. takeover of the Cobham defense firm — once a useful asset to the British military for £4 billion ($5 billion USD) in December, which was decried as giving more power away to Washington.

Richard Goldberg, who until last week was a member of the White House National Security Council (NSC), recently warned that Britain refusing to change its stance on Iran would lead to jeopardizing a future U.S.-UK deal. Such concerns are reasonable as Brexit is a pressing issue with significant economic uncertainty; therefore, London sees maintaining good ties with Washington as essential.  

This has distanced Britain from its fellow European JCPOA signatories France and Germany and restricted the EU’s capabilities of reducing tensions towards Iran. 

However, both Paris and Berlin also have avoided criticizing Washington’s influence, considering they are still bound by their ties with the U.SH., which are more crucial than the economic benefits from the Iran nuclear deal. Testament to this is how Trump reportedly threatened to impose tariffs on Europe if they did not criticize Iran for violating the nuclear deal. While the rest of Europe is currently less vulnerable to U.S. pressure than Britain, it is still clearly driven by this.  

Yet more significant is the fact Britain has distanced itself from Europe, leaving the EU limited in its ability to de-escalate tensions and preserve the JCPOA deal amid Trump’s pressure. His latest move on January 10 to impose further sanctions on Tehran shows that dire relations with Iran will continue, with Europe too impotent to oppose them.