A US-Iran war could be a far greater challenge for the UK than Brexit

Trade talks with the EU could yet offer pleasant respite from a new Middle Eastern conflict. 

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Boris Johnson has, along with the fellow heads of Europe’s other two regional powers, France and Germany, issued a joint statement urging de-escalation in the stand-off between the United States and Iran – and calling for Iran to maintain its commitment to the nuclear deal, brokered by the three nations in concert with Russia, China, Iran and the United States. 

The three-country statement is the latest example of the disconnect between the UK’s foreign policy posture, and the reality of the policy pursued by successive British governments since Donald Trump’s election. The rhetoric, mostly, is one of closeness and loyalty to the United States, in order to service the internal Conservative Party argument that a US-UK trade deal is just around the corner, and to facilitate the external anti-Corbyn argument about the departing Labour leader’s foreign policy positions.

The reality is of building on the ever-deepening defence integration with Europe’s other military power, France, and of occupying the same position as the rest of the democratic world on Trump: making reassuring noises and hoping for an undramatic end to his presidency in November of this year. While the opposition parties will continue to leverage photos of Johnson with an unpopular US president, the image that actually reveals what US-UK policy in the age of Johnson is like was that clip of Johnson and his fellow leaders bonding over their mutual anxiety and incomprehension at the behaviour of the American president. 

As I wrote in the dying days of Theresa May's premiership, the appetite at the top of the Conservative Party to refight the Iraq war with a more formidable opponent and a less competent president is low. The appetite in the country is lower still. But a US war with Iran (against a greater power than Iraq, with no allies outside the region, at a time when US power is already facing challenges that did not obtain during the Iraq war) will have huge ramifications across the world, and despite the repeated calls from Johnson and his European counterparts for de-escalation, relations between the US and Iran continue to decline. Indeed, you can make a reasonable argument that the US’s decision to respond to an attack on its embassy by assassinating an Iranian official means that the two countries are already de facto at war. 

A government that expects Brexit to be its biggest foreign policy challenge might yet find that EU-UK trade talks come to feel like a pleasant respite from the consequences of full-blown conflict between Iran and the US.

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Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.