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.

Nightcap

  1. Boris & Donald: A special relationship Lippman & Toosi, Politico
  2. The looming end of Pax Americana Brian Stewart, Quillette
  3. A lesson for the Israeli occupation Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
  4. A new history of Charlemagne Charles West, LRB

Brexit Breakdown and Confusion

I posted earlier this month on Brexit Breakdown suggesting that the aims of enthusiasts for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, leaving the European Union, have been eroded as the UK government’s positions drifts towards ‘soft Brexit’ accepting alignment with EU regulations on industrial goods and food, at the very least. This is still the case, but the situation has become increasingly complex, driven in an unpredictable way by contradictory forces, as I will attempt to explain below.

Full ‘soft Brexit’ would mean membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), with almost complete adherence to European regulation. ‘Hard Brexit’ means eliminating any adherence to EU regulations, which in its most rock hard form means a willingness, even a preference, for crashing out of the EU with no agreement, resorting to World Trade Organisation rules to govern trade. On the other side are ‘Remainers’, including myself, who ideally would like to stay in the European Union after a referendum reversing the decision of two years ago; and who if this is not possible will work for the return of the UK to the EU at a future date.

It is still the case that over time the government has drifted towards soft Brexit, though not EFTA, and seems likely to end up agreeing to an even softer Brexit after EU negotiations are complete. The most notable area of likely compromise with the EU is to preserve an almost completely open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by allowing de facto membership of the EU Customs Union of Northern Ireland through a de facto border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, largely in the form of EU customs inspections on ships between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The House of Commons anyway came very close recently to voting for the UK as a whole to form a customs union between the UK and the EU, so a proposal backed by the government for a form of customs union between the UK and the EU allowing an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic without a customs border in the Irish Sea would certainly pass the House of Commons. It is one of the oddities of Brexit that a free vote of the House of Commons would result in the UK joining EFTA and this is resisted by the leadership of the two largest parties.

The Labour Party leadership resists EFTA (or any other way in which the UK stays in the Customs Union or the Single Market) though most Labour Party Members of Parliament, party members, and voters support remaining in the EU. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn supported Remain in the referendum though he has always looked like a socialist critic of the EU as a capitalist club. The Conservative Party leadership resists EFTA, though most Conservative MPs supported Remain in the referendum and would vote for EFTA now, and the leader (who is also Prime Minister), Theresa May, supported Remain during the referendum. In the case of the Conservatives though, party members and voters are mostly Leave and hard Brexit.

Theresa May gathered her Cabinet at the Prime Minister’s country residence, Chequers, recently to force through a soft Brexit package, in the hope of ending increasingly public conflict on the issue. Two members of the Cabinet have since resigned and Brexiteers in the House of Commons have forced some concessions, though of a rather secondary kind, which might disappear in further negotiations with the EU and the final parliamentary vote on the exit deal.

The consequences of recent political manoeuvres are as follows:

  1. The government has moved towards a softer Brexit,
  2. Hardcore Brexiteers have pushed back with some success,
  3. A second referendum seems more likely though not the most likely scenario,
  4. A no deal hard Brexit seems more likely though not the most likely scenario.

These four things do not seem to go together and what has happened is a drift from what seemed like the overwhelming probability of a hard Brexit with an agreement, to a relatively chaotic situation in which it is becoming harder and harder to decide on the most likely of the possible outcomes.

Hard Brexit without a deal has come to seem more likely because hard Brexiteers in the Conservative Party may undermine any agreement the Prime Minister (who has recently started to exercise direct control over negotiations) may reach with the EU and there are signs that the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) will take voters from the Conservatives in the case of a soft Brexit. Theresa May is trying to achieve a position which can get most MPs behind her, and most Conservative MPs will probably support any deal she proposes. However, the hard Brexit people are willing to do anything to undermine a deal they consider inadequate and may vote with Labour in voting down a deal, though for very different reasons.

May’s hold on the Conservative Party is weak after her very poor performance in last year’s general election and no one expects her to be the leader at the next election (though given that the impossible seems to be becoming possible maybe we should not accept this as a given). Any election for the leader requires a contest in the parliamentary party to determine two candidates, with the Conservative Party membership as a whole deciding between them. The membership will undoubtedly vote for the more hard Brexit candidate, which at the moment seems likely to be Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg. Rees-Mogg has absolutely no governmental experience at all, which would create an unprecedented situation if he does become Conservative leader and Prime Minister.

Neither Rees-Mogg nor Johnson is popular with the parliamentary party, so there must be a real possibility that neither makes it the final list of two candidates, presuming the parliamentary party does not persuade the candidates behind the leader of the first round to abandon the contest, which is what happened in May’s case. This could set off a major crisis in the Conservative Party.

The possibility of a second referendum (labelled a People’s Vote by its main advocates) is increasing because it seems likely that hard Conservative Brexiteers allied with the Labour Party will vote down any soft Brexit, and it also seems likely (but less likely as hard Brexiteers are more willing to vote against their own government) that an alliance of soft Conservative Brexiteers and the Labour Party will vote down any hard Brexit. It also seems very possible that the EU will reject any UK offer, as the arguments within Parliament and the Cabinet on the terms of Brexit refer to what can be agreed within British politics, not what the EU might find acceptable. At the very least it seems increasingly likely that substantive Brexit will be postponed, apart from withdrawal of UK representatives from EU institutions, for at least a couple of years after next year’s formal withdrawal.

The various forms of deadlock described above have not yet made a second referendum likely, but are increasing the likelihood of a second resort to the People to find a solution, though the question that would be asked, the form of any such referendum, its timing and so on remain unclear. Opinion polls show increasing support for a second vote and for then remaining in the EU, while the media is giving more coverage to the possibility. I would be happy to see such a result myself. The increasing uncertainty about what Brexit means itself undermined Leave claims that it would be an easy exit. Nevertheless, I have to say that the UK is probably leaving and that a no-deal Brexit is also increasing in probability.