By Eleanor Beevor
All signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran nuclear deal, have been on a rough ride since President Trump’s tumultuous decision to withdraw from the agreement. Since Trump broke out of the treaty, the other signatories to it have been doing all they can to vocally condemn the move, and to try and counteract America’s violation of the deal.
These members were the other four nations that sit on the United Nations Security Council - Britain, France, Russia and China. Germany was also party to it.
However, out of the signatories to the deal, none are as desperate to maintain good relations with America as Britain. After the political earthquake that was the Brexit referendum in 2016, and the bitter negotiations with the European Union (EU) that have followed it, the UK’s good relations with Europe are no longer assured.
The situation is made ever more contentious by the nationalist fervour gripping the so-called “Hard Brexiteers”, those politicians who wish to abandon Britain’s membership of every European institution, including staples of its current trade such as the EU single market and the Customs Union.
Theresa May waves goodbye to Europe (AFP)
Brexit political earthquake
These include ministers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and other prominent members of the Conservative party. They insist that Britain owes Europe nothing, and that it need not fear the collapse of a departing deal with the EU. In their limitless self-confidence, and their determination to eradicate all traces of the EU from Britain’s future, the Hard Brexiteers have proven themselves ready to compromise historical alliances to get the Brexit they want. This has put them at loggerheads with the “Remainers”, those who wish that Britain had never left the EU.
The resultant ideological division has split the governing Conservative party down the middle. And trying to hold it together is the embattled Prime Minister Theresa May. She succeeded David Cameron, who resigned after the referendum result, and was left with the unenviable task of trying to unite a divided party, and carve out a strategy for leaving the EU. In order to fight off later crises of legitimacy, she called a general election in June 2017. But instead of reaffirming a Conservative majority, she lost their existing one. Unexpected gains by Labour forced the Conservatives to form a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland in order to hold onto government.
Boris Johnson, hardline Brexiteer (AFP File Photo)
Searching for Atlantic allies
May is well aware of not only her own vulnerability, but Britain’s as well. Now that there is no certainty over what Britain’s future relationship with the EU will look like, she has been in search of other allies. And from the moment the result of the 2016 U.S. election was announced, she decided that Britain would do what it took to be a friend to President Donald Trump.
Within days of his being sworn in as President, May invited Trump for a state visit to Britain. This is the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a foreign leader. It involves a stay with the Queen at Buckingham Palace and a state banquet. And it is a courtesy that is hardly ever extended during a world leader’s first year in office – Bloomberg reported that her team hoped that this would “appeal to Trump’s vanity”.
She then for a time refused to condemn Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim majority countries, despite enormous protests in Britain. An unfortunate photograph of Trump holding May’s hand, taken in January 2017 when May visited Washington and splashed across Britain’s front pages next day, helped to cement an image of her as getting too close to the highly controversial US president.
Lack of diplomatic decorum
But these fresh differences between Britain and America over the JCPOA are just the latest indication that the gains of a close relationship with Trump have not been worth the political flak May took for them. Instead of being a dependable ally, Trump has repeatedly embarrassed May.
His pot-shots on Twitter at the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, and his retweeting of posts by the far-right extremist group Britain First made clear that he did not value the UK’s alliance enough to respect diplomatic decorum.
And the hopes for a highly beneficial trade deal between Britain and America after Brexit have been described by a recent British ambassador to America as an “illusion”, particularly as Trump amps up his threat to put tariffs on imports. As a result, the state visit had to be put on perpetual hold. Whilst Trump will be visiting Britain in July, it will be a working rather than a state visit, and May has reportedly asked him to meet at her country residence in order to avoid the inevitable protests in London.
Thus when Trump announced that he was withdrawing from the JCPOA, despite the 11th hour attempts by European leaders to persuade him otherwise, Britain had to take stock of where its allies really lay. There were arguments from some right-wing think-tanks that Britain should side with Trump, given the historical alliance with the US, and the fraught relations between Iran and the West.
However, there was ultimately greater reason to maintain British support for the deal. Professor Christopher Hill, a specialist in Britain’s international relations at the University of Cambridge, told Al Bawaba:
Keeping UK distance from Trump
“The UK government has faced a tough choice. However, given the support from the EU over the Skripal affair, but more importantly given the importance placed by most UK opinion, including within the FCO, on the Iran deal, it would have been a major move to have sided with Trump. What’s more the sheer unpredictability of US foreign policy now means that any country lining up with the US could easily be left and dry by yet another change from the White House, so only a gambler would do that. Much better to keep with the status quo and watch on events. Trump’s lack of interest in achieving peace between Israel and Palestine, a central plank of UK and EU policy since 1980 is a further reason for keeping a distance.”
The difficult truth for Westminster is that Trump no longer values the UK’s friendship. This is partly a result of Trump’s hubris and his lack of regard for alliances in general. But it is also because Britain’s chief international strength over the past half-century came from its role as a bridge between America and the rest of Europe.
Its “special relationship” with America, and its status as a leading power in the EU, made it an indispensable conduit of transatlantic relations. Now that it has burned one of those bridges, it will have to accept a weakening of its international clout. Trump made clear that he now considers France a more important international player when he called Macron first to discuss striking Syria after the Douma chemical attack.
Whilst that downgrade spells trouble for the UK once it has well and truly left the EU, it does mean that it can stick to the JCPOA without rising too much ire from Trump. Its near-departure from the EU means that it may not have to contend with the EU’s blocking regulations on Trump’s sanctions, or at least not for long.
Professor Rosemary Hollis, a specialist on British and European international relations at City University of London, told Al Bawaba:
“The UK sees a dangerous precedent in the decision of the US Presidency to ditch this international agreement unilaterally. It undermines the rule of law at the international level. However, the British government can do little to persuade major British companies with economic and financial exposure in the United States to jeopardise that by continuing to do business with Iran now. Consequently, the British can do little to compensate Iran for the consequences of the Trump decision. Hence, the British government no doubt calculates that Trump will get his way – and will not therefore make a big deal out of Britain’s position on this issue.”
Britain’s decision to stand by its commitment to the JCPOA was the right one. This is not only because the deal is the best option for international security. It also serves to demonstrate to its post-Brexit partners, whoever they may be, that the country keeps its word. Whether it can convince the world of the value of its friendship in its uncertain political future is a whole new problem.
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