It took 12 years for global powers and Iran to achieve the great diplomatic success of the 21st century: a deal that exchanged relief from US-enforced oil and banking sanctions for the elimination of any practicable path towards a hypothetical Iranian bomb.
In a stroke, Trump unilaterally “withdrew” from Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and approved, in the words of his latest Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “the strongest sanctions in history“.
The new sanctions are extraterritorial, which means they extend beyond US nationals and companies, to any transaction made by any company with any Iranian company or bank using US dollars.
Because the US dollar enjoys the status of the international reserve currency, Trump has in effect sanctioned every business on the planet that trades with Iran, including of course British firms. In a firebrand speech calling on Iran to give up any semblance of military deterrence and sever ties with its regional allies, Pompeo said that “We will hold those doing prohibited business in Iran to account.“
The exceptions for medicine and food mean little because, without access to the international financial system, Iran has no means to pay for them except by smuggling cash out of the country – a detail I discovered was worryingly lost on the British government.
The remaining members of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the EU – have said they are sticking to the deal. Iran has stuck to it and breaking it increases the chance of nuclear proliferation and a regional war in the service of regime change in Tehran, the latter of which Trump’s latest National Security Advisor John Bolton, a leading architect of the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, has advocated for years.
It is vital that government works with the remaining signatories to the deal, particularly the EU, to protect UK economic interests against US sanctions, which are illegal under international law.
At home this means the state sharing in the risk of trade with Iran by using the Bank of England as a conduit for private trade with Iran in the same way Germany has done with its own central bank.
Multilaterally, Britain can work with the remaining JCPOA signatories, whose collective GDP is double that of the US, to implement a system to claw-back dollars stuck that get frozen or fines levied by the US, paid for by levying equal fines on US economic activity within the territories of the remaining JCPOA signatories.
Britain’s exposure to these sanctions is not insignificant. Britain manufactures many parts for Airbus, including the wings, and stood to benefit from a $25 billion deal signed between the company and Iran for 100 planes in January 2016. British insurance firms including Lloyd’s of London and London P&I Club underwrite billions in insurance for Iran’s massive fleet of tankers.
Trump is of course trampling over international law and human rights in Iran, and forcing Tehran into a stark position where it has to choose between economic ruin or nuclear proliferation. But he is also trampling over Britain’s economic sovereignty in the process.
An amicable settlement of exceptions and waivers on sanctions is possible, but we must first, jointly with our partners to the JCPOA, respond reciprocally and proportionately. China used this strategy on Trump to elicit US relief and financial assistance to support its electronics giant ZTE which was hit sanctions for trading with North Korea.
The clock is ticking. Trump has given the world until the November 4th to ‘wind-down’ its business with Iran to comply with US sanctions. Britain should work with the remaining parties to the JCPOA, which are meeting on May 25 in Vienna, to present Trump with a robust and coordinated response to his secondary sanctions on our economies.
But I hold little hope that our government will act to support UK economic interests. In the statement to Parliament on Trump’s ‘withdraw’ from the deal, the government stated that the UK would remain in the JCPOA, but the hour was filled by FCO Secretary Boris Johnson and other Tory members discussing Iran’s “malign behaviour”, “malign activities”, “malign power” and “malign influence”. The word was in fact used 15 times by numerous Tory MPs throughout the debate, suggesting the government had specifically briefed its members to taint Iran, which has adhered to the deal, rather than discussing ways to keep the deal alive.
Iran is of course not a liberal democracy but a conservative religious establishment and not a place, as a gay man, would choose to live. Similarly, I would not live in many Middle Eastern nations with poor human rights records, which the government would not call malign, for example Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
But my opinions about Iran’s human rights record, nor for that matter its ballistics programme, or its support of groups that work against our allies in the region, are not relevant to the issue at hand because none of them fall under the auspices of the JPCOA.
It is therefore deeply dispiriting that in the wake a dangerous Trumpian play against our economic interests that risks endangering world peace and the livelihoods of millions of Iranians, the government used its time to repeat the cynical talking points of Donald Trump and John Bolton.
Compare this to the French Foreign Minister, Bruno Le Maire, who asked last week, “Do we want to be vassals who obey decisions taken by the United States while clinging to the hem of their trousers? Or do we want to say we have our economic interests?“
Or Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, who said: “This deal belongs to each and every one of us“, and that it enjoins us not to “let anyone dismantle this agreement“.
We do not have a serious government, so I expect nothing from it. Britain needs a government at this time to works within the rule-based system in the service of both British interests and global peace, exactly what the JPCOA is designed to do.
Lloyd Russell-Moyle is the Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown and member of Committees on Arms Export Controls.