Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
How do you solve a problem like Iran? You don’t, if ‘you’ refers to the individual. As we enter a decade of national sovereignty – America First, Make in India, Belt & Road Initiative – there are still several geopolitical challenges that require global responses.
There is no better example than in the Middle East, where no single nation around the world is capable of unilaterally unwinding centuries of building tension. Even the Americans found that out under Barack Obama, in building a global coalition around the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to combat Iranian nuclear expansion.
Since then, Donald Trump has made Iran a central feature of his approach to foreign policy. At the start of the New Year, this site’s Editor asked: ‘Trump and Iran. What’s the plan?’. Since then, tensions have both increased and thankfully cooled, but in truth we are no closer to finding an answer.
Go big or go home
The President’s knee-jerk reaction to foreign policy challenges often appears to be a binary choice: go big or go home.
In April 2017, Trump ordered the ‘Mother of all Bombs’ to be dropped on an ISIS complex in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. The political benefit was palpable: 92 ISIS militants were killed, a figure often cited by the president in subsequent rallies and press conferences. A fortnight ago, the President ordered an airstrike that killed Qasem Soleimani. Less than ten days later, at a campaign rally in Wisconsin, he devoted a chunk of his speech detailing the fallout of the strike, while lambasting Democrats for not fully supporting the military action.
And yet there are countless examples of Trump looking to pull back from costly and often deadly feuds abroad.He took American allies by near total surprise when he abandoned Kurdish forces and withdrew US troops from northeast Syria – a move described by The Economist as a ‘greenlight for Turkey to go after the Kurds, who bore the brunt of the US-led campaign against ISIS and lost 11,000 fighters in the process’. The President has even gone as far as saying the US ‘should never have been in Middle East’.
It is perhaps lazy to assume that the President’s only foreign policy motivation is domestic political benefit, but beyond that the objective is less discernible. Can a president really be for ‘bringing our boys home’ while also dropping bombs and ordering assassinations abroad?
Between a rock and a hard place
As Britain plots its proud new place on the world stage, there is much work to be done. Brexit is often considered a political and regulatory challenge and opportunity, but rarely viewed through a foreign policy prism. Thought of in terms of Britain’s international place, Brexit is kaleidoscopic.
On services regulation, we want the freedom to diverge with the European Union and align ourselves closer to the Americans.
On fishing and farming, we want to be proudly British, breaking free from the shackles of the Common Agricultural Policy and set our own rules for our land and waters.
But what role do we want to play in Iran? Elsewhere, will we join the Belt and Road Initiative like Italy, or firmly rebuff it at the insistence of Washington? Will we embrace the prospect of the greater Chinese investment associated with allowing Huawei access to the UK’s 5G infrastructure network, or will doing so ‘sour relations with the US’?
Those truly global challenges outscale even Brexit, and pose a more fundamental challenge to Britain’s future place on the world stage. In seeking to answer many of these questions, we may find that we are caught between a rock and a hard place.
A Free Trade Agreement with the United States remains one of the standout jewels in the Brexit crown, and this President could hardly be more enthusiastic about doing a deal with our Prime Minister. Facing re-election in November, there is a clear and obvious incentive for the White House. And yet Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the International Trade department must have all the balance, craft and guile of a ballerina in driving our trade negotiations while occasionally standing up to the Americans on foreign policy disagreements.
Iran has proven a perfect microcosm of a dilemma that will play out ad infinitum in 2020 and beyond. This week, we chose to be European, and stood alongside the French and Germans in triggering a dispute mechanism in the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action in relation to Iran. Under the mechanism, the Joint Commission (which is made up of representatives from every signatory) will have 15 days to review the situation. The future is uncertain.
Boris Johnson is seeking to be the aforementioned ballerina. He wants to build a traditional transatlantic bridge between foreign policy in Washington and Europe. If the JCPOA is flawed and to be scrapped, it must be replaced by a comparable agreement, he argues.
There is no sign of that being a popular viewpoint in Washington, but the prime minister could have taken a step closer to answering the Editor’s question: What’s the plan? Trump is a man who prides himself on deal making. If the JCPOA is to be scrapped, he might position himself as the foremost leader to negotiate a new and improved deal signed with his seal of approval or he could recline further from the international stage – go big or go home.
Bridging the divide between Europe and Washington would represent a monumental foreign policy and diplomatic victory for the Prime Minister. It would plant a proud British flag firmly on the world stage.