New thorns in the Special Relationship: Persian, Chinese, and populist

The past few days have been witness to some important statements made in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Program for Action (JCPOA) — also referred to as the Iran Nuclear deal. US allies, including the UK and some EU member states, do not seem to be in agreement with the US President’s Iran policy in general, and especially his inclination towards scrapping entirely the JCPOA.

Boris Johnson’s interviews and his comments on the JCPOA

In an interview to the BBC on January 14, 2020, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that the JCPOA could be renegotiated, and seemed to be accommodative towards Trump. Said Johnson: ‘Let’s work together to replace the JCPOA and get the Trump deal instead.’ Johnson’s remarks came a day after the UK, Germany, and France had issued a joint statement announcing that all three countries were totally in favor of keeping the JCPOA alive. The UK, Germany, and France had also said that they were keen to ensure that the nuclear non-proliferation regime is kept intact, and that Iran is prevented from developing nuclear weapons.

Earlier, in a telephonic conversation last week with Johnson, US President Donald Trump told him that the deal was ‘foolish‘ and that the other signatories should also walk out of it.

During the course of his interview with the BBC, which happened to be Johnson’s first interview with the media after the victory of the Conservative Party in the UK’s recent general election. Johnson, while having a dig at Trump, said that the US President thought himself of as a good negotiator, as did many others. Johnson also made the point that the current deal had been negotiated by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and alluded that this was one of the key reasons why Trump wanted to renegotiate the JCPOA.

Members of Johnson’s cabinet and their comments on the Iran deal

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, while criticizing Iran for failing to meet with the compliances related to the JCPOA, also stated that the UK is keen to keep the deal intact. Before Raab, another member of Johnson’s cabinet, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, had also indulged in some straight talk, lambasting the Trump administration for its increasingly isolationist approach towards global issues, and Trump’s tendency of taking Washington’s allies for granted. Wallace had also stated that US support for the UK’s coalition should not be taken for granted.

Responses of Trump and Rouhani to Johnson’s remarks

Trump’s response to Johnson’s suggestion regarding a fresh JCPOA was predictable: he welcomed it. Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in an aggressive address on January 15, 2020, lashed out at the EU and UK, saying that all Trump knew was violation of contracts, so there was no question of a new Iran deal.

UK-US relations

Interestingly, Johnson in his interview to the BBC, had also said that there was no real need for the UK to have been informed in advance by the US with regard to the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. It would be pertinent to point out that not just members of the Labor Party, but even a senior Tory MP, Tom Tugendhat, who is also a former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized the US for not consulting the UK.

This brings us to another important point. While Johnson’s main challenge is perceived to be the withdrawal of the UK from the EU by January 31, 2020, there are likely to be important differences between Washington and London over dealing with Iran. A close advisor of Trump, Richard Goldberg, who until recently was a member of the White House national security council (NSC), has already stated, for example, that if Johnson wants a UK-US Free Trade deal, the UK should immediately pull out of the Iran deal.

US-UK FTA and Trump’s support for the same

Trump has been in favor of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the UK (which happens to be the 5th largest trading partner of the US) for some time. In fact, in his congratulatory tweet to Johnson after his victory in December 2019, Trump had said that Britain and the U.S. will now be able to forge a significant new trade deal after Brexit. At the G7 Summit in 2019, Trump had spoken about how the US would sign a pathbreaking trade deal with the UK, post Brexit.

It has been argued that while the conservative lobby in both the US and UK has been in favor of bilateral FTA, there are lobbies in both countries which are fervently opposed to such an idea. It also remains to be seen whether the Trump Administration is serious about imposing conditionalities on the UK regarding the FTA — such as, supporting the US stance vis-à-vis Iran. Given the reactions by some members of Johnson’s cabinet (to Trump’s handling of the Iran issue), it is tough to really predict the UK’s reaction.

Not just Iran, US-UK also differ over Huawei

Another issue that could be an impediment to the further consolidation of economic and strategic relations between the US and the UK is the British use of Huawei’s hardware for the development of next-generation 5G wireless networks. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, had stated that non-core technologies of 5G were acceptable while core parts would be banned. At a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) in 2019, some of May’s colleagues, including Jeremy Hunt (then Foreign Secretary), Sajid Javid (then Home Secretary and now treasury secretary), Gavin Williamson (then Defence Secretary), and Penny Mordaunt (then international development secretary), had opposed May’s decision. Interestingly, Williamson had been sacked for allegedly leaking the proceedings of the meeting.

Johnson’s approach towards Huawei

In the interview to BBC, Johnson stated that he did not want to jeopardize cooperation with any of the other “5 Eyes Intelligence alliance partners” (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US are the other members of this network). While hinting at the US stand on Huawei, Johnson said that those criticizing one technology also needed to provide an alternative.

Differences between US and other allies over other crucial economic and strategic issues

It is not just the UK but other allies, like India, who will be closely watching Trump’s approach on crucial geopolitical issues. For instance, the US had earlier stated that India would get a waiver from CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) even if it went ahead with the purchase of S400 missiles from Russia, but a State Department spokesperson recently commented on the waiver to India and stated that there was no blanket waiver. Of course later, the State Department spokesperson did clarify that the US views these issues on a case by case basis.

Conclusion

If one were to look at the scenario for bilateral relations between the UK and the US (defined as a ‘special relationship’ first by Winston Churchill in 1946), there are numerous challenges. There is a tendency to oversimplify bilateral relationships by looking to the personal chemistry of leaders or to leaders’ ideological inclinations, as in the case of Johnson and Trump. There are likely to be a number of obstacles which may come in the way of the bilateral relationship (discussed above).

In addition to this, there is a note of caution for other allies like EU member states (especially Germany and France), Canada, and Japan, which have already borne the brunt of Trump’s insular economic policies, and his myopic and transactional approach towards complex geopolitical issues.

3 thoughts on “New thorns in the Special Relationship: Persian, Chinese, and populist

  1. The United States does not have a special relationship with any nation, nor does it have allies. It has customers, clients, competitors and enemies and the circumstances of the time will indicate which slot you occupy. The cheese eating surrender monkeys of the Bush Administration could just as easily morph into the tea-drinking, mullah-loving-monkeys of the Trump administration if the United Kingdom does not blindly following his obsession with erasing the accomplishments and popularity of his African American predecessor, “He made me do it” rarely reads well in the history books.

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