When Gibraltar’s authorities unexpectedly impounded the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 in July, one member of Donald Trump’s administration was particularly pleased. John Bolton, the president’s hawkish national security adviser, tweeted: “Excellent news”.
The authorities in Gibraltar – with the backing of the British – said the vessel was heading for Syria. Selling oil to the regime of Bashar al-Assad was in breach of EU sanctions.
But for the US, the seizure served a wider purpose, first to ratchet up the economic pressure further against Syria and above all Iran. Its cargo, worth $140m (£116m), represented lost revenue for Tehran as well as a lost source of energy for Damascus regime.
Caught up in the middle, however, was Britain. Iran seized a British-flagged tanker in the Gulf in retaliation, under the noses of the stretched Royal Navy, leaving British merchant shipping looking vulnerable in the region, despite UK claims that Gibraltar had acted independently.
Britain needed help in the Gulf and under new prime minister, Boris Johnson, chose to turn to the US, abandoning an idea first aired by his defeated leadership rival Jeremy Hunt, who had wanted to create a European-led naval protection force in the world’s busiest oil shipping lane.
It was a decision British officials tried to play down when it was announced last week that the UK would “join in with” the US on maritime security in its initiative, Operation Sentinel.
But when Bolton came to London on Monday, he was far less subtle. “We were pleased PM Johnson’s government has agreed to participate in Operation Sentinel,” he said, adding pointedly that the move “reflects a change from the prior government”.
Hunt and the former prime minister Theresa May were acutely aware of French and German sensitivities and did not want to throw their naval lot in with the US in waters just south of Iran, at a time when all three European powers want to cool tensions with Tehran and keep the nuclear deal negotiated under the Obama administration alive.
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