The White House is trying to put Iran and Britain at loggerheads in order to sow discord in the EU over the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) and several issues on which the EU and Iran hold similar positions. In other words, Washington is acting indirectly, trying to use those who at present support Iran, according to Farhad Ibrahimov, a post-graduate student at the Center for Post-Soviet Studies, Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IMEMO).
Britain is not interested in escalating tensions over Iran’s super-tanker Grace 1, which British Royal Marines helped seize in Gibraltar. London was only acting on instructions from Washington, which is ready to use any methods, except military ones, to increase pressure on Iran. The Americans believe that this incident could influence Tehran’s decisions concerning its support for Syria. Theoretically, nobody has proved that the tanker was carrying oil from Iran to Syria because it was seized without the required inspections by the EU agencies.
President Trump is unlikely to use harsh methods to pressurize Iran, because he has officially begun his campaign for reelection in 2020. Any foreign policy mistake, including on the Iranian case, could frighten off his electorate.
Iran’s possible response
Ebrahim Raisi, the current Chief Justice of Iran, has said Iran would retaliate against Britain. This does not mean that the Iranians will seize any British vessel they can lay their hands on. Tehran will hardly opt for open confrontation, but it will not turn a blind eye to the incident either. Instead, it could mount pressure on the Europeans over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which is currently the most painful subject for Iran. Besides, Tehran knows that Europe is not interested in derailing the nuclear deal.
Tehran has announced a “second phase” in the reduction of its commitments, has increased the level of its uranium enrichment to the limit set by the JCPOA, and in two months’ time, will indicate what other commitments it will scale down. It is already clear that Tehran is sending a signal to the three European leaders about the seriousness of its intentions. Actually, Iranians are extremely pragmatic people who know that any attempt to derail the JCPOA would play into Washington’s hands. Tehran does not want to bury the nuclear deal, which is why it is acting in “phases.” First it will suspend its JCPOA commitments, giving the EU time to react. If the Europeans fail to do anything to preserve the deal, and if no other solution appears possible, Iran may withdraw from the JCPOA.
Many Iranian politicians, from both the conservative and the reformist camps, have proposed taking retaliatory measures against the tankers that carry oil from the Arabian Peninsula to Britain. Some Iranian politicians have even suggested using Iranian-made combat drones for raids on the oil refineries and storage facilities located on the western coast of Saudi Arabia, which cooperate with British companies in exporting oil from that country.
It is rumored that Iranian military companies have created a new model of a guided surface-to-surface missile for attacking large stationary facilities that are protected by air defense systems. They can send these missiles to the Houthis in Yemen, who could use them to retaliate against Britain by causing significant damage to the Saudi oil industry, thereby killing two birds with one stone.
However, this scenario will only materialize if London takes a unilateral step towards escalating tensions with Tehran, for example, by pointedly emulating its ally, the US, in withdrawing from the JCPOA.