Analysis: UK Role in Gulf

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HMS Kent (Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images) 


The United Kingdom’s government has announced that it will send another warship to the Persian Gulf as tensions with Iran increase in a context of regional power struggles, the possible collapse of the Iran nuclear deal and American threats against Tehran.

The UK announced that the frigate HMS Kent will travel to the region in September in order to increase the Royal Navy’s presence there to three ships. The UK already has HMS Montrose permanently positioned in the Gulf, but the frigate is going to enter a Royal Navy base in Bahrain for around a month for refueling and re-stocking purposes.

A destroyer – HMS Duncan – is currently on its way to the Gulf, and is expected to arrive in the coming days. It is to provide relief and avoid a gap developing in the UK’s Gulf deployment. HMS Duncan has now also been sent to the Gulf.

Operation Kipion

The Ministry of Defence has said that the ships’ movements are all planned deployments and part of the UK’s long-established Operation Kipion and claims that they are not related to the current tensions with Iran.

Security in the Gulf is of vital importance to British commercial interests and the Strait of Hormuz is a key trade route. Tensions have increased sharply after a Royal Navy warship deterred Iranian patrol boats that were allegedly trying to impede a British tanker that was sailing through the Strait of Hormuz.

For its part, Iran has demanded the immediate release of its own oil tanker, which was captured off the coast of Gibraltar by the UK, warning: “This is a dangerous game and has consequences.”

Last week, the UK raised the threat to British shipping in Iranian waters in the Gulf to the highest level – where the risk of attack is critical. Subsequently, boats believed to belong to Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps approached the British Heritage tanker (which is owned by British Petroleum) and tried to bring it to a halt as it was moving out of the Gulf into the Strait of Hormuz. HMS Montrose, a British frigate shadowing the tanker, was forced to move between the three boats and the ship, a Ministry of Defence spokesman claimed, while Iran denied any attempted seizure.

Strait of Hormuz

Between 15 and 30 British-flagged tankers and other large ships are in the Persian Gulf on a daily basis and between one and three pass through the Strait of Hormuz every 24 hours.

The UK is a staunch US ally as well as an ally of numerous regional rivals of Iran: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. As well as providing military support for these regimes, the UK relies on their trade and their hosting of UK military bases.

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has sought to reassure his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, telling him that the vessel was intercepted because of suspicions it was carrying a shipment of oil to Syria, rather than because it was Iranian.

Mr Hunt said he told Zarif that he would facilitate the oil tanker’s release in return for guarantees from Tehran that it would not breach EU sanctions on Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime. Iran’s adherence to the terms of the nuclear deal has not been matched by key signatory, the United States. President Donald Trump abandoned the deal and has doubled down on punitive economic sanctions which are harming the Iranian population.

Nuclear Deal

Under these conditions, Iran’s bargaining position is arguably strengthened by showing a willingness to also back away from the nuclear deal. European states, including Britain, are keen to maintain the deal, which was a foreign policy coup for them and had provided much-needed stability in a volatile region.

The UK has been seeking to deepen its involvement and influence in the Gulf in recent years and the prospect of Brexit has increased London’s enthusiasm for positive relations in the Gulf. To these ends it has committed itself to the security of a number of regional monarchies. Combined with its close alliance with the United States, this appears to put the UK on a collision course with Iran. However, the UK cannot realistically consider an unpopular and costly military confrontation with the Islamic Republic and so seeks to avoid military escalations, while also standing firm against what it sees as Iranian encroachment on its interests.