There was one stand-out voice in the world leaders’ chorus of shock and horror at the result of the Brexit Referendum on June 23rd 2016. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani tweeted that Brexit was a “historic opportunity” for Iran.
Exactly why Iranians saw Brexit as an opportunity is up for debate. The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced that it was a clear sign that the EU had “lost the trust of the people” and that the Islamic Republic, “as a democratic establishment”, supported Britain’s withdrawal. Some speculated that Tehran was looking forward to seeing Britain get its comeuppance for its shameful colonial legacy in Iran. There was also a resentment towards the EU for its close ties with America. And not unlike the UK’s Brexit supporters, there was a suspicion that the EU was holding individual nations back from striking up trade deals with Iran.
But that was June 2016 and this is now, and all of a sudden the EU is the lifeline of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Iran nuclear deal. Donald Trump, in his bid to scrub away every aspect of the Obama legacy, had been threatening to upset the JCPOA deal as much as possible throughout his campaign. He grudgingly agreed to extend the sanctions waiver that the deal mandates in January 2018. But he did so on condition of several adjustments to the deal, adjustments which would be largely impossible to legislate. The EU is, so far, standing steadfastly by the deal, and given the boost in trade the JCPOA has allowed, they have the European business community’s support. However, in its rogue soon-to-be-ex member, both the EU and the JCPOA may have a new obstacle, one which would tip the scales of the deal’s survival.
The Brexit vote has seen the Conservative government consumed by internal divisions as the clock ticks towards the deadline for it to leave the EU. What Brexit is actually to look like was never agreed by proponents of the Leave campaign, whilst those who opposed leaving in the first place are also fighting back. With little to no consensus in her party and her negotiations in Brussels, Prime Minister Theresa May’s hold on power is dismally weak.
She is caught between those who wish to give Brexit an economic safety net by staying in the EU’s single market and customs union, and the “hard Brexit” supporters who wish to sever all ties so that they are uninhibited in striking new bilateral trade deals. Not a day goes by in Britain without a new headline speculating on when, not if, May will be ousted and replaced. And while so far Britain’s internal squabbles have meant there is no time for new adventures in foreign policy, Iran may be an exception if May cannot hold on.
In early February, The Sunday Times newspaper reported that a group of hardline Brexit supporters were preparing their own leadership team, ready to take over if May was ousted. This would be headed by Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Michael Gove as Deputy Prime Minister. Despite the furore the report was met with, there is no guarantee it will happen, or if it does, that these cabinet positions will stay fixed; Jacob Rees-Mogg is currently the bookies’ favourite to be the next Prime Minister.
Moreover, there is no guarantee the Conservatives will hold onto government in the next general election. The lead in the polls, when they do have it, is extremely narrow and with a long time to go before the next election. Nevertheless, it is more than likely that Rees-Mogg, Johnson and Gove will have enormous influence in future Conservative cabinets. Indeed, as the most prominent supporters of a “hard Brexit”, they already do. And if they were to enter leadership positions, the Iran deal might very well lose a willing national partner, and possibly its viability.
So far, Boris Johnson, the current Foreign Secretary and potential Prime Minister, has been the most supportive of the deal. He has said that a better alternative to the deal has yet to be produced, and has so far made no indication that he wishes to withdraw from it. His relationship with the Iranian government is an awkward one after he wrongly said that the detained British-Iranian citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran training journalists, when in fact she had been visiting her family.
He was forced to go back on the statement and admit his error to the Iranian government in order to undo the damage.To his credit, this so far does not seem to have affected his stance on the deal, although that is no guarantee of his future support. Johnson is famous for many things, but his consistency is not one of them. Better known is his unfortunate habit of insulting foreign leaders with off-the-cuff remarks, a less than ideal trait for managing a testy relationship with Iran.
Whilst so far he has thankfully maintained his support for it, his likely allies in a “Brexiteers” cabinet have shown a different view. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a possible Chancellor or even Prime Minister, is less convinced by the deal, and may well become combative towards it the closer to power he gets. Rees-Mogg’s influence in British politics has soared since the referendum. His popularity among hard Brexit supporters is sky-high, and that is partly because he is seen as “authentic”. His public persona is almost a caricature of the old-fashioned English aristocrat – he is known in Westminster as the Honourable Member for the Eighteenth Century.
Despite that, Rees-Mogg is the closest thing that British politics has to socially conservative American Republicans. He opposes abortion in all cases, including rape and incest, as well as gay marriage, and indicated his personal support for Trump. That parallel with American cultural conservatism extends to the extremely cynical view of the Iran deal, and of its government. Rees-Mogg recently wrote:
“Donald Trump wants to respond to this with more sanctions and move away from the agreement of his predecessor Barack Obama… and it may be that he is right. The basis for the Obama deal was that it would help the moderates, but when protesters take to the streets the moderates seem to disappear.”
Perhaps Rees-Mogg was unaware that the December protests in Iran were very likely started by conservative factions opposed to President Rouhani and his rapprochement with Europe and America. The fastest way to hurt the factions of Iranian politics prepared to make peace with the west would be to give up on the deal and increase sanctions. With every insult and indication that he will pull out of the deal, Trump makes the case for the hardliners in Iranian politics that the West cannot be trusted. Yet even if Rees-Mogg does understand the hugely fragmented nature of Iranian leadership, there is reason to suspect he will continue to push against the deal.
Rees-Mogg has risen to the edge of power by embodying the populist, identity-based appeals of Brexit. He is a polite culture warrior, but a culture warrior nonetheless. His meeting in December with Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser and chair of right-wing news site Breitbart, could suggest he is ready to embrace conservative identity politics in coming campaigns. Iran has a special place in the ire of Trumpian conservatives, and if Rees-Mogg sees a hawkish stance towards Tehran as part of a winning recipe, he may very well follow suit.
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Finally, there is Michael Gove, the possible Deputy Prime Minister. Out of the three, Gove is the most dedicated in his support of Israel. He is a prominent figure in the Conservative Friends of Israel organisation, and addressed their Annual Business Lunch in December. In his speech, he said that Israel’s enemies did not want to see its borders redrawn, but eliminated altogether, alluding to an impossibility of peaceful solutions. Whilst support for Israel’s security does not automatically mandate opposition to the Iran deal, Gove has previously indicated his distaste for it. In December 2016 in a tweet, he quoted an article about the future of the Iran deal, and added “But it’s the Iranian government presiding over Aleppo massacre”.
Gove, and also Rees-Mogg’s stated concerns about Iranian violations of human rights are perfectly valid. Supporters of the deal cannot and should not deny that Iran has committed horrific crimes both in Syria, and against its own people. The anti-Semitism within the ranks of the regime and its hostility to Israel is equally undeniable.
But what opponents of the deal have yet to satisfactorily explain is how abandoning our remaining influence in Iran will improve the situation. The JCPOA is not perfect, but it is still a barrier to a nuclear Iran where no other barrier exists. The factions of Iranian politics that remain prepared to both do business with the west and encourage reform are the ones that will take the hit if the deal is walked back on. The Iranian economy is dire and Rouhani’s popularity is suffering for it. But this is in significant part because of ongoing sanctions, and businesses’ hesitations to invest because of Trump’s repeated threats to walk back on the JCPOA.
The ones who will benefit most from an about-turn on the deal will be the autocrats, while the people of Iran that the deal’s critics claim often to speak for will be worse, not better off. A future British government, whether it is made up of hard “Brexiteers” or not, must resist the temptation to follow the American populist line, and instead support its erstwhile EU partners on Iran. There is nothing to gain here from walking away, but there is a great deal to lose.
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