By Arab News
By Luke Coffey*
This week, a seismic shock wave hit British politics when Boris Johnson became the United Kingdom’s 55th prime minister. He inherits a full in-tray, at the top of which is the responsibility for delivering Brexit, as the British people instructed the government to do in the 2016 referendum. But dealing with Iran will not be far behind on the list of priorities.
Even though Boris has spent four decades of his life working in and around the British political establshment, before ascending to the UK’s top job, he is still very much an unconventional politician.
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson — to give him his full name — was born in New York City (he is the second British prime minister born abroad; the first was Conservative Bonar Law, who was born in Canada in 1858 and served as PM from October 1922 until May 1923). He is the great-grandson of former, and controversial, Ottoman Interior Minister Ali Kemal Bey.
Johnson is the 20th prime minister who was educated at the UK’s elite school of Eton, but is probably the first who is a direct descendant of a slave (on his Circassian great-great-grandmother’s side).
His unconventional style rallies his supporters and rattles his opponents. He is very quick to speak his mind, often with no filter. When I worked in British politics, the immediate response whenever Johnson would say something slightly off the rails was always “Boris will be Boris.”
But the UK needs someone like him right now. It is right, timely and proper that the leader of the United Kingdom is finally someone who not only believes in leaving the EU, but who adamantly campaigned to do so. This was one of the original flaws of predecessor Theresa May’s premiership: Her heart was never really in leaving the EU.
May viewed Brexit as a problem to be solved. Johnson views it as an opportunity of which to take advantage. May refused to walk away from the negotiation table if required. Boris clearly will. A majority of the ministers May appointed in her Cabinet did not believe in leaving the EU. In contrast, those in Johnson’s Cabinet took a pledge to leave the EU by Oct. 31 — no matter what.
But while getting the UK out of the EU will remain the top challenge for Johnson, the situation with Iran is not far behind. The big question that many Middle East watchers have is how British policy on this might or might not change now that he is the UK’s leader. There are three reasons to suspect that there will be a change in British policy.
Firstly, with its reckless piracy in the Gulf, Iran has forced the issue onto the UK’s new prime minister. Whether he wants to or not, Johnson will have to act.
Defenders of Tehran point out that the UK first apprehended an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar and suggest that this justifies Tehran’s capturing of a British-flagged tanker in Omani waters. These incidents were not the same. One was the enforcement of EU sanctions, the other was common piracy. Johnson is someone who will want to demonstrate leadership and decisiveness early on in his premiership, so expect changes to UK policy in the Gulf
Secondly, Johnson will want to use the Iran situation to bridge the gap that has developed between the US and the UK following the recent leak of diplomatic cables, sent by the British ambassador, that criticized President Donald Trump.
Already we are seeing a change in tone from that which was on display during Theresa May’s period in charge. During his first speech as prime minister in the House of Commons, Johnson blasted Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, for “being paid by Press TV of Iran” and as someone “who repeatedly sides with the mullahs of Tehran rather than our friends in the United States” over what is happening in the Gulf. Expect the UK to now be more open and sympathetic to US overtures.
Finally, when the UK leaves the EU as expected in October, it will have more of a free hand to determine its own policy on Iran. Currently, the UK is tied to the EU’s position on the Iran nuclear deal. During the period of complex Brexit negotiations with the EU in the coming months, nobody in London wants to complicate relations with Brussels any further. So until the UK finally and formally leaves the EU, it is unlikely to do anything drastic in terms of its participation in the Iran deal. But after the UK does leave, jettisoning support for the deal becomes a real possibility — especially if Iran persists with its cavalier behavior in the Gulf.
Coming from the right wing of the Conservative Party, Johnson instinctively believes in a strong military and a robust foreign policy. The recent capture of the British tanker highlighted the pitiful numbers of ships available to the Royal Navy, and there will be mounting pressure on Johnson to invest in the armed forces, sooner rather than later. This is something he already suggested he would do within the first 24 hours of his premiership.
As someone who has spent most of his adult life trying to obtain the prize of becoming prime minister, and as a prolific writer and historian, Johnson will be acutely aware of his position in history. Whether it is delivering Brexit or confronting Iran, in everything that he does he will be wondering how it will be viewed in the future. This is why a change in UK policy toward Iran is not only expected, but also needed.
It might not happen quickly — but it is going to happen nevertheless. The Iranians better wake up.
- Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey