In Depth

Is Hunt’s plan for European-led Gulf force a good idea?

Foreign Secretary wants escort for ships through Iranian waters but distances himself from Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy

Jeremy Hunt has proposed the creation of a European-led maritime taskforce to protect ships sailing through the Strait of Hormuz, amid rising tensions between Europe and Iran.

The foreign secretary announced the plan in the Commons on Monday, following an emergency Cobra meeting to discuss the Stena Impero, the British-flagged tanker seized by commandos from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on Friday.

The Independent reports that Hunt told MPs that discussions on the forming of a protection force “have taken place with a number of allied states in the last 48 hours”, with further talks to be held later this week.

He also used the opportunity to condemn the actions of Iran as an “act of state piracy” and said that Tehran had “no right to obstruct the ship's passage”. He continued: “It is with a heavy heart that we are announcing this increased international presence in the Gulf, because the focus of our diplomacy has been on de-escalating tensions in the hope that such changes would not be necessary.”

Hunt’s goal seems to be to “coordinate with a US push to create a coalition to provide escorts to international vessels transiting through the region but - significantly - for it to be a separate entity”, says Sky News. But despite what he calls “constructive talks” with other European states, some experts worry that such a move could be viewed by Iran as a major escalation of tensions.

What is Hunt proposing? 

Under the plan, the UK would develop a maritime protection and escort mission alongside other European nations, in order to allow ships to pass safely through the area.

Sky News reports that “details were rather light from the foreign secretary on who would be involved, how many warships and surveillance aircraft would be deployed and when the thing would be up and running”.

According to the BBC, the foreign secretary secured support for the initiative from both French and German foreign ministers on the phone on Sunday.

“If Iran continues on this dangerous path, they must accept the price will be a larger Western military presence in the waters along their coastline,” Hunt said as he announced the proposal. “Not because we wish to increase tensions but simply because freedom of navigation is a principle which Britain and its allies will always defend.”

He also confirmed that the Department for Transport has raised the security level for British-flagged shipping to Level 3 - the highest classification - while also advising against any passage through Iranian waters. Vessels that must use these routes are being asked to notify the UK authorities, so that an escort can be arranged.

Will this further damage relations with Iran?

The Independent suggests that the move is “certain” to further escalate tensions between Britain and Iran, adding that some Iranian officials are already adopting the view that the UK “may start to take a tougher line with Tehran”.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif this week warned the West against “starting a conflict”, saying Tehran was not seeking confrontation. “Starting a conflict is easy, ending it would be impossible,” Zarif told reporters on Monday.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the UK has been attempting to “defuse pressure”, despite Iran making attempts to “goad London” by releasing pictures of the Stena Impero’s detained crew and of an Iranian flag flying on the ship’s mast.

Will this damage relations with the US?

Hunt’s controversial proposal may draw the ire of US President Donald Trump.

In early July, the US announced that it is planning to create an international military coalition to safeguard strategic waters off Iran in response to the tanker conflict, but the BBC reports that it has had “few takers”.

According to broadcaster’s defence correspondent, Jonathan Marcus, countries “do not want to be seen as joining what might appear to be a US coalition against Iran”, especially as the Trump administration does not support the re-signing of the Iran nuclear deal, from which the US withdrew in 2018.

Hunt - along with most of his European counterparts - has been pushing for the deal to be reimplemented, allowing for sanctions on Iran to be lifted. As a result, Hunt announced that his proposed task force would seek to “complement” US proposals rather than join Washington’s so-called “maximum pressure” policy on Tehran.

The Daily Telegraph reports that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stepped up the pressure on Hunt in recent weeks, claiming that Britain needs to “pull its weight”.

On Monday, prior to Hunt’s announcement, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif tweeted that “having failed to lure @realDonaldTrump" into the “War of the Century”, US National Security Advisor John Bolton was now “turning his venom against the UK in hopes of dragging it into a quagmire”.

Following Zarif’s conclusion that “only prudence and foresight can thwart such ploys”, Tehran may take a little solace from the UK’s decision not to join the US in its hard-line stance against Iran.

Meanwhile, BBC Newsnight’s defence editor Mark Urban warns that in military terms, there is “no rapid fix” for the shipping security problem.

“Even if the present crisis caused the Government to open its cheque book, swelling the destroyer and frigate force back up, even say to 30, could be a decade’s work, not least because of the need to train up thousands of additional sailors,” Urban writes.

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