News headlines have been dominated by the Iranian oil tanker that was seized by British troops off the coast of Gibraltar. Whilst both London and Tehran acknowledge that the tanker was en route to Syria’s Mediterranean coast, the media of both countries have failed to explain why the tanker did not travel along the comparatively short route from Iran to Syria via the Suez Canal. A full explanation behind this can be found at TankerTrackers.com in an article which clearly explains why a heavy (and outdated) vessel belonging to Iran would have not been able to travel through the Canal due to its extreme weight which could only be accommodated by incredibly deep waters. A subtext to this is that it is also generally less costly to take the much longer voyage from west Asia to the Mediterranean via the Cape of Good Hope than it is to pass through the Suez Canal.
Whilst the issue has caused a serious deterioration in British-Iranian relations, the actual incident (when one looks past the hysterical rhetoric on all sides) is best described in the words of Harold Macmillan as “a little local difficulty” as opposed to anything materially dire. The fact that Iran’s outdated tankers are forced to take a needlessly long journey around Africa just to reach the Mediterranean and the compounding fact that the tanker seized was so outdated that it doesn’t even have clearance to dock at many international ports leads one to the inevitable conclusion that a heavily sanctioned Iran is in such a weakened economic state that any quarrels with Tehran simply are not worth anyone’s while.
For Iran, the seizure of the tanker is a matter of pride and principle. Additionally, such an arguably “dramatic” incident could help to convince an increasingly economically squeezed Iranian population that they are resisting international foes in something of a heroic manner. For Britain, the event is yet another distraction from a prolonged campaign in which the ruling Conservative party are choosing a new Prime Minister. As Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is likely to lose to his more charismatic rival Boris Johnson, Hunt is doing all he can to play the jingoistic card in a last ditch appeal to an otherwise pro-Brexit electorate (Hunt voted to remain in the EU in 2016).
Thus, if it is foolish for Britain to “talk tough” against China, a country with which Britain needs a post-Brexit free trading agreement, it is all the more useless to waste time provoking Iran – a country that poses neither a threat nor any real commercial opportunities for Britain.
When taken as a whole, the mundane reality of a British government selectively enforcing EU sanctions on Syria has been blown out of proportion by both of the two interested governments and by many dishonest international media outlets. In many ways, the most interesting aspect to the story is the fact that it shows just how little Britain is interested in jointing Germany and France in supposed attempts to save the JCPOA (aka the Iran nuclear deal). Just as the French based financial mechanism to support commerce with Iran whilst avoiding US sanctions has been accurately described as rather useless by Tehran, Britain’s actions against Iran contribute to making the message loud and clear that Europe’s largest economies don’t really care about maintaining what’s left of positive ties with Iran.
The fact of the matter is that contrary to what Brussels, Berlin and Paris say, Iran has no real state allies outside of an Iraqi failed state, a war torn Syria and some elements of Lebanon’s coalition government. Iran might have many non-state allies within multiple nations, but the fact remains that even its trading partners like China, Russia and especially India are beginning to view Iran more as a liability than an asset whilst Europe has been exposed as completely impotent in opposing US sanctions on Tehran.
For Britain, the incident is just another reminder of the flawed logic in vainglorious displays of military might at a time when Britain’s sole goal in foreign relations ought to be aimed at securing as many free trading agreements outside of Europe as possible. Threatening China and provoking Iran aren’t exactly the best ways in which Britain can endear itself to the wider world with which it seeks to trade once Brexit is finally complete.
All of that being said, “tankergate” has been instructive in exposing the modus operandi of both Britain and Iran but the incident itself is little more than a “sideshow of a sideshow” to quote Robert Bolt’s peerless script to Lawrence of Arabia.