Martin Horwood MEP writes… Gibraltar, Trump and Iran: the Brexit connection

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Gibraltar has just controversially released the Iranian oil tanker formerly known as the Grace 1 with a new name and a written assurance from Tehran that its shipment won’t be used to break EU sanctions on Syria.

As a member of the European Parliament’s Iran delegation and one of the LibDem MEPs for Gibraltar, as well as the South West of England, I have warmly welcomed this move. And I’m pleased to be in a position to strengthen our co-operation and influence with Europe on this critical issue. Its no exaggeration to say that peace in the Persian Gulf hangs in the balance. While the Conservative government flirts with Donald Trump, we’re working with our European allies to de-escalate crises like this.

I spoke to Gibraltar government representatives after their original impounding of the Grace 1. They told me that once they had received British and American ‘advice’ that the tanker was bound for Syria, they were obliged to act under international law. I can respect that position, even though the effect was to unhelpfully inflame tensions in the Gulf itself, and was followed by the illegal seizure of a British-flagged vessel, the Stena Impero, by Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guards.

So is Boris, anxious to stay in Donald Trump’s good books as Brexit looms, lining up with his hostile approach to Iran? If so, this would be a worrying departure from previous UK policy.

In 2015, the EU, UK and the US all signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, alongside France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran itself. It was an astonishing and increasingly rare diplomatic alignment which halted Iran’s headlong drive towards nuclear armament and included comprehensive monitoring and verification.

Perhaps most importantly it strengthened the hand of relative moderates inside Iran like President Hassan Rouhani, re-elected in 2017. That election might not have met western democratic norms but it was nevertheless fiercely contested with more conservative candidates. Rouhani’s ability to demonstrate that a conciliatory approach to world powers had brought dividends to Iranians with the lifting of international sanctions, as well as his reformist approach to greater personal freedom, undoubtedly helped him on his way to victory.

For once, it seemed, the international community had played its hand peacefully and well in the middle east. It no longer seemed impossible that Iran might be drawn down a more responsible path and there might be some end in sight to the Shia state’s long-running cold war with its Sunni adversary Saudi Arabia.

Were it not for Trump.

Lining up with Iran’s most committed enemies in the region and hawks in his own administration, the maverick new US president unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 and re-imposed American sanctions. Iran responded by announcing uranium enrichment that would in turn break their obligations but insisted this was reversible. And the kind of US sanctions-busting in which the Grace 1 seems to have been involved became an obvious and urgent consideration for Iran. Unfortunately, on this occasion, they chose to break EU sanctions against Syria at the same time, hence Gibraltar’s action.

It is right to insist on safe passage in these strategically important shipping lanes, in accordance with international law. But Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and re-imposition of sanctions is strengthening the hand of hardliners in both Iran and Saudi Arabia and could lead to a nuclear arms race in an already volatile region.

We need to maintain both the UK’s and the EU’s support for the deal and seek opportunities to de-escalate the immediate crisis.

The European Union has emerged as the voice of reason in this unhappy situation. It has restated support for the JCPOA. It has created a financial instrument, Instex, to allow European companies to trade with Iran in defiance of Trump. In reply to my question in the European Parliament, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini confirmed they would not follow the US down any path of regime change. And she confirmed that the EU would continue to work hard for regional dialogue and reconciliation.

And of course, the European Union has the political and economic clout to do this.

The renamed tanker sailing out of Gibraltar today marks a welcome de-escalation of tensions. Gibraltar has acted in accordance with EU law in releasing the tanker. US sanctions on Iran are not recognised by the EU and there is no basis for Donald Trump to insist otherwise.

It’s hard to imagine a very small country like Gibraltar standing up to the USA in this way without the full support of the European Union, especially with the Johnson government under extreme pressure to stay in Trump’s good books as Brexit looms. It’s yet another example of how things might look very different after Brexit.

* Martin Horwood is Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament for the South West of England & Gibraltar. He is a member of the European Parliament’s Iran delegation. He is Borough & parish councillor for Leckhampton, Gloucestershire.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • nigel hunter 20th Aug '19 - 9:47am

    Trump et al is a destabilising entity. Obsessed with America first (make the US rich at others expense) He is allied with the rich Saudi Arabia for one. Johnson being ‘a look alike’ who thinks Trump is ‘great’could easily become his lapdog after Brexit leading us down an uncertain path.
    I have also seen a tweet from Trump ”Massive combined inoculations to small children is the cause for big increase in autism (8.22pm -23 Aug 2012 -twitter web client). If true his comment , ,being a celebrity , could be one of the reasons for the MMR problems the World seems to be having at the moment.

  • Andrew McCaig 20th Aug '19 - 4:37pm

    Another good article on foreign affairs following on from Hong Kong and Kashmir.

    Why does our Party still not have a Foreign Affairs Spokesperson in the Commons??

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