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U.S. and U.K. At Odds Over How To Deal With Rising Tensions With Iran


The new British prime minister will be tasked with managing Brexit at home. But abroad, relations with Iran are shaping up to be a major challenge as well. Right now the U.K. is also at odds with the U.S. about how to manage the tensions that have shaken the entire Persian Gulf region. The U.S. wants a coalition of countries to protect commercial shipping around the Gulf. The U.K., though, has its own plan. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that Europe will create its own maritime coalition independent of the U.S.


JEREMY HUNT: It will not be part of the U.S. maximum pressure policy on Iran because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement.

MARTIN: Which is the deal that the Trump administration pulled out of a year ago. NPR's Jackie Northam is following developments and joins us now. Hi, Jackie.


MARTIN: So we just heard from Foreign Minister Hunt. He was responding to Iran's seizure of this British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz that happened Friday. What else did he say in those remarks?

NORTHAM: Well, the foreign minister was speaking to parliament, and he issued a strong condemnation of Iran for seizing that British tanker and its 23 crew members because they were in international waters at the time. Hunt called it an act of state piracy, although Iran says it was in retaliation for the U.K. seizing one of their tankers earlier this month in Gibraltar. Hunt announced that the U.K. will not join a maritime security coalition that the U.S. has been trying to put together; instead, it's going to try and create this European force to take the task on themselves.

But, you know, Rachel, as details have emerged about the Iranian assault on the British tanker, it's highlighted just how challenging it is to protect ships in the waters around the Persian Gulf. You know, in this most recent incident, a British warship was in the Gulf at the time and warned the Iranian boats to withdraw, but the British ship was 60 minutes away, too far to come to the rescue of the British tanker.

MARTIN: So why wouldn't Britain want help in this effort, then? I mean, why is Europe and the U.K. in particular so worried about being associated with the U.S. in trying to protect these ships in the Gulf?

NORTHAM: Right. Well, in this case, it goes back to the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, which the Trump administration pulled out of just over a year ago and has been following up with increasingly stiff sanctions on Iran. The Europeans and other countries don't like this. They believe that Iran was adhering to the deal, and they want it to remain intact. And they don't want to be part of the administration's maximum pressure campaign. The Europeans also feel that Iran's aggressive behavior in the Gulf recently can be traced back to the decision for - by the Trump administration to pull out of the nuclear deal.

I spoke with Sanam Vakil about this, and she's a senior fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, and here's what she had to say.

SANAM VAKIL: The Trump administration has not really looked to Europe as being a relevant player or partner and instead pursued a unilateral policy on many important issues.

NORTHAM: So it seems the U.K. is worried that a U.S.-led force could be seen as inflaming tensions in the Gulf. However, Hunt did say the European maritime coalition would be complementary to the U.S. plan.

MARTIN: But what does that mean? I mean, what is the U.S. plan? And is - does the British plan - is it a redundancy?

NORTHAM: Well, he didn't explain much more, except to say that both plans will be focused on freedom of navigation. The Pentagon says the U.S. model will be called Operation Sentinel and could include having ships at both ends of the Strait of Hormuz, along with drones and surveillance. It's unclear how this would work with the European model.

The administration met on Friday with representatives from about 60 countries to talk about this. And, you know, one analyst, they said the U.S. might be turning to Asian and Middle Eastern countries who don't have the same military ability as Britain. Here's Becca Wasser. She's a Middle East specialist at the RAND Corporation.

BECCA WASSER: There's really an open question as to whether the U.S. will end up cooperating with this new European coalition or if this ends up sort of spelling the end to Operation Sentinel as a coalition project. And it might just end up being solely a U.S. operation.

NORTHAM: So Rachel, the Pentagon is supposed to be working on these questions right now.

MARTIN: And just briefly, Jackie, when you say the Europeans see Iran's actions in the Gulf as a response to sanctions by the Trump administration, are there any indications that the U.S. is going to increase that pressure?

NORTHAM: Yeah, most likely. It's already sanctioned a Chinese state-run oil company. And, you know, that could - you know, buying Iranian crude, that could increase tensions with Iran and China.

MARTIN: NPR's Jackie Northam for us this morning. Thanks, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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