Analysis 4 Sep 2019

The Gulf’s Centrality to British Security

Michael Stephens

The UK’s role in Gulf security has come into focus following a spat with the Islamic Republic of Iran, in which both sides impounded tankers in a tit-for-tat escalation in July. Following a series of negotiations to release the Grace 1 (now renamed the Adrian Darya 1) from Gibraltar, in exchange for the British flagged Stena Impero, the saga has ended in a farce.

Despite the initial seizure of Iran’s tanker because its intended destination was Syria, the recently released Adrian Darya 1 was last seen floating close to Syrian waters, before turning its transponder off on Monday evening. It is safe to assume the Adrian Darya 1 is now in Syrian territorial waters and unloading its cargo in defiance of the international community and the EU, whose sanctions the tanker’s cargo was contravening. Quite when the Stena Impero will be released is as yet unclear. It is an embarrassing result for all involved and highlights the need for a far more resolute stance vis-à-vis Iran and its sanctions busting activities in future.

Although the Iranians will feel that they have emerged from its spat with Britain with their prestige enhanced, the reality is that (apart from a propaganda win) Tehran has not created any strategic benefit for itself. In fact, Iran’s strategic position in the Gulf is weaker now than when it first impounded the Stena Impero. The reason for this is simple, which is that the protection of shipping in the Gulf has now become a high priority for the United States, and in order to avoid looking weak the UK has had to step up its own presence in the region in order to protect international sea lanes.

A US led operation now protects the vast bulk of civilian shipping entering the Persian Gulf, which includes the UK, Australia and Bahrain, leading to the largest Western naval presence in the area since the second Gulf War. This has led to a highly congested waterway becoming even more difficult to navigate. Additionally the Iranians have used the opportunity to test out tactical “trolling” manoeuvres buzzing warships in small boats, and disrupting communications with fake messaging. The UK’s HMS Montrose has reported that it is now in daily confrontations with Iranian forces who consistently test the limits of the coalition’s resolve while never crossing the line into armed conflict.

Iranian naval activity in response to the multinational force is an irritant no doubt, but it is only that. Iran is now more hemmed into its coastal waters than it has ever been, and its ability to create further disruption by impounding tankers or threatening civilian shipping has drastically been reduced. By impounding the Stena Impero Iran has created an environment in which its maritime behaviour will require extensive monitoring and extended levels of increased military presence for some time to come.

Although Britain struggled to raise a multinational force of its own to counter Iran, finding European partners either reluctant or unable to back a maritime mission, it was always going to be the case that the US would be the dominant player in any such endeavour. It wasn’t London’s finest piece of diplomacy, and left the impression that Britain had to fudge a military coalition with Washington, rather than lead its European allies from the front. But the fact that Britain has subsumed its maritime presence into that of the US is neither surprising, nor strategically unsound.

Although Brexit questions engulf London’s political class, there is still much to think about overseas. For over four years the UK has committed to a Gulf Strategy built upon a strong bedrock of defence engagement. This defence engagement is now reflected in an operational engagement to patrol Gulf waters and increase defence cooperation with Arab Gulf partners across air, land and sea. The GCC is highly dysfunctional, but despite its myriad of problems all six GCC states can agree it serves nobody’s interests to allow Iran to disrupt international shipping lanes, through which 30% of the world’s oil is exported. And so, the opportunity for Britain to play a constructive role in partnering both the US, and the Gulf states has never been greater.

The UK’s strategic footprint in the Gulf is therefore set to increase; the political, security and strategic reasons are clear, and there is a need in a post-Brexit world to tack more closely to US positions on questions of regional security. Both to continually demonstrate Britain’s worth to Washington, but also because both countries still view Iran’s tactical and regional activity as a threat to their interests.

Tehran’s recent behaviour has been duplicitous and destabilising, leaving little doubt in London that more must be done to counter Iran’s disruptive actions. It is not exactly an ego boost to have been outsmarted by Tehran on the tanker debacle, but London’s commitment to a wider strategic imperative must override any sense of hurt pride. The maritime mission in the Gulf is doing its job effectively, and the UK must take pride in the part it is playing, and will play in the coming years to ensure the security of a region so vital to global interests.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.