The British government disagrees strongly with President Trump on the Iran nuclear deal, adding further strain to an already fragile transatlantic allianceby Rupert Stone / August 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
During the 2016 election Donald Trump described the Iran nuclear agreement as “the worst deal ever” and vowed to rip it up. But, since entering the White House, he is yet to honour that pledge and has twice certified that Iran is in compliance with its terms. That could change, however, as Trump recently directed some of his advisers to find evidence that Iran is cheating. Although there has not been talk of a military attack, this is worryingly reminiscent of the 2003 Iraq War, when the British and American governments wrongly believed Saddam Hussein had active weapons programs and arguably cherry-picked intelligence to make their case.
But there is one major difference between Iraq and the current situation. While Tony Blair’s government sided firmly with the US in 2002-3, the UK has thus far disagreed with Trump’s position and remains a staunch supporter of the Iran deal. Prime Minister Theresa May described the agreement as “vital” in December, 2016, and defended it strongly in her first meeting with Trump. The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, issued a rare op-ed in the Washington Post this summer arguing that the deal had successfully prevented Iran from developing nuclear weapons and should be upheld.
Then, last week, Johnson dispatched his deputy, Alistair Burt, to attend the inauguration of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, where he joined other European ministers, including EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini (the US was absent). Indeed, Europe has been especially outspoken in its support for the nuclear deal and, despite Brexit, Britain finds itself firmly in Brussels’ camp. Trump’s relations with the continent have been poor, especially after he withdrew from the Paris climate accord in June. Germany and France went so far as to publicly criticise new US sanctions against Iran and Russia passed by Congress last week.
“A recent Lords report stated that ‘The UK should continue to support the Iran nuclear deal, whether or not it is supported by the US'”
Congress voted overwhelmingly for the sanctions, showing that Trump’s hostility to Iran is shared by many on the Hill. The UK parliament, however, has displayed nothing like the same antagonism towards the Islamic Republic. On the contrary, a House of Lords report in May stated that “The interests of the UK Government are clear. The UK should continue to support the Iran nuclear deal, whether or not it is supported by the US.” Draconian US sanctions “will be a grave impediment to the sustainability” of the nuclear agreement, the report concluded.
Trade with Iran has been disappointing since the deal was concluded in 2015. True, British exports increased by more than 40 per cent in 2016, while French oil company Total and carmaker Renault recently inked deals with Iran. But further investments have been hampered by the refusal of European banks to provide financing out of fear they will breach American sanctions and face large fines. UK trade envoy to Iran Norman Lamont has repeatedly expressed dismay with American obstructionism, calling Trump’s desire to isolate Iran a “mistake” in a strongly-worded interview with Bloomberg in May.
Nuclear cooperation has long been a core feature of Britain’s “special relationship” with America, making these disagreements all the more remarkable. That relationship has also been defined by close intelligence collaboration, and here too there have been tensions. Trump accused Britain’s signals intelligence agency GCHQ of tapping his phones at the behest of President Obama, enraging British officials. Leaks to the US media about Britain’s police investigation into the Manchester terrorist attack drew an angry rebuke from Theresa May and an unprecedented suspension of intelligence-sharing.
“Nuclear cooperation has long been a core feature of the ‘special relationship’—making these disagreements all the more remarkable”
Admittedly, transatlantic relations were already showing signs of strain under President Obama. The Cameron government’s enthusiastic embrace of China, which saw Britain join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank against American objections and host President Xi for an extravagant state visit in 2015, angered the Obama administration, which felt betrayed by its close ally. Obama returned the insult when he criticised David Cameron for cutting back on defence spending and mishandling the 2011 Libyan intervention. There were also rumours of reduced US-UK cooperation on special operations forces.
Initially things seemed to pick up when Trump took office. Theresa May was the first foreign leader to visit him, and the two were even seen holding hands at the White House. While other European leaders strongly criticised Trump’s travel ban, May hesitated. Britain is of course keen to stay in the US’ good books to secure a favourable post-Brexit trade deal. But relations have soured over time, and Trump is so unpopular in the UK that a planned state visit this year was postponed. As things stand, May is unlikely to side with the US on Iran, especially when her own political future is in peril after a disastrous election result in June.
Of course Trump is an unusual president, and current difficulties between the US and UK might well be short-lived. Anglo-American relations have deteriorated before, most notably in the late 1960s when Britain refused to commit troops to the US war in Vietnam. But there was a marked improvement in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher worked closely together. It is possible, and even likely, the alliance will strengthen once Trump has gone and a more conventional US administration replaces him. But, until then, the “special relationship” could be in for a bumpy ride.