John Bolton, the hawkish US national security adviser, has started two days of meetings in London with key figures in Boris Johnson’s government as the US pitches to steer a post-Brexit UK further away from Europe on a range of issues including trade, the Iran nuclear deal and the role of the Chinese technology firm Huawei.
Bolton is the most senior Trump official to visit since Johnson became prime minister, and the move is seen to have increased the chances of the UK leaving the European Union on 31 October without a withdrawal agreement – a position more in line with the Brexit policy favoured by the US president.
Bolton will be testing how the UK intends to position itself as a country “freeing itself of the shackles of the EU” at the G7 world leaders summit this month in Biarritz, hosted by the French president, Emmanuel Macron.
That summit, the first opportunity for Trump to meet Johnson since he became prime minister, is likely to be dominated by transatlantic disagreements over Iran and the value of multilateralism. In an admission that the UK may be edging closer to the US, Macron is not looking for a declaration signed by all seven countries, but coalitions of the willing on specific subjects instead.
Bolton is hoping that, after Brexit, a Johnson administration will gradually adopt a foreign policy on Iran more independent of its two former EU partners Germany and France, and closer to the policy of maximum economic pressure on Tehran imposed by Trump.
His visit is a chance to test how far Johnson’s premiership is leading to tangible initial changes in UK security policy. For example, if Britain is abandoning the concept of a European maritime security force in the Gulf, that could be seen as a prelude to a deeper shift on Iran.
The Foreign Office has so far insisted that the US policy of sanctions strengthens hardliners in Tehran, weakens moderates ahead of elections and increases the chances that Iran will seek a nuclear bomb, triggering a nuclear arms race across the Middle East.
As foreign secretary, Johnson was willing to disagree with Trump on Iranian strategy when the US withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal, but with Brexit imminent and the prospect of a US-UK trade deal, he will be looking to curry favour with Trump.
Underlining Bolton’s interest in a no-deal Brexit, he is slated to meet Bernard Jenkin, Bill Cash and Iain Duncan Smith, three veteran supporters of Brexit outside the Johnson administration.
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