The Challenge of Iran to the West

On Friday 19th July Iranian forces seized the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero as it sailed through the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranian government saw this as a justifiable act of retaliation for the British seizure on 4th July of another tanker, Grace 1, full of Iranian oil and thought to be destined for Syria.

The Stena ImperoThe Stena Impero

The British Foreign Secretary responded with a statement that the capture of Stena Impero was “an act of state piracy” and added that Britain would “take appropriate action to support the safe passage of vessels through the Strait of Hormuz.”

Thus tensions between Western nations and Iran have now reached the level of an international crisis, largely due to the huge amounts of oil and gas that are shipped around the world from the Persian Gulf.

So the UK has called for a European alliance to guard shipping through the Gulf against further attacks by the Iranians. But the effectiveness of any such coalition is questionable given the limited naval and military resources of the European nations. 

The UK wants to work with its European allies rather than with the USA so as not to be part of the Americans’ policy of maximum pressure on Iran. The Europeans are still committed to preserving the nuclear agreement with Iran.

That approach was highlighted when the European Union’s representative for Foreign Affairs described Iran`s recent breaches of the 2015 nuclear deal as ‘not significant.’ Federica Mogherini went on to say:

“We invite Iran to reverse the steps and go back to full compliance.”

Indeed, when the USA imposed significant sanctions upon Iran last year, the European Union (EU) agreed 18 million euros (£16.1 million) in aid for Iran to help offset the impact of the US sanctions and salvage the deal that was reached in 2015 for Tehran to limit its nuclear development programme.

Providing aid in this way places a significant amount of trust in the Iranian government to act in line with detailed requirements about use of the money. This week it has become apparent that the EU may have a difficult lesson to learn. Part of the aid agreement required Iran to give the money to importers of a pre-approved list of essential goods, such as medicines and food. Those importers were then obliged to purchase those particular goods.

But now it seems that as much as 1 billion euros ($1.12 billion) of aid money has “disappeared”. The Iranian President’s chief of staff is reported to have written a letter to ministers of industry, agriculture and public health, demanding an explanation of what has happened to the imports promised by those who received the money.

When Western countries want the Iranian government to behave in a way that enables co-operation within the international community and the promotion of trade, the current behaviour of that government is far from helpful.

It may be time for recognition of the realities of Iranian policy and a more pragmatic stance towards Iran.

UPDATE 26th JULY

As if confirmation of Iran’s intentions were needed, the country launched a Shahab-3 medium-range missile on Wednesday. The missile flew for about 1,100 kilometres inside Iran.

Whilst American officials sought to play down the significance of the launch, it violated a UN Security Council resolution and appears to be a very clear statement by Iran in its escalation of the confrontation with the USA and Europe.