Anyone banging drums of war can stop now – neither Iran nor Britain can jeopardise mutual interests

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Boris Johnson and Ebrahim Raisi - EPA/AFP
Boris Johnson and Ebrahim Raisi - EPA/AFP

The Government is under pressure to show it is serious about standing up to Iran over the death of a British crew member during the drone attack on the Israeli-managed ship MV Mercer Street last week.

General Sir Nick Carter, the chief of the Defence Staff, told the BBC on Wednesday that “we've got to restore deterrence”.

But if anyone is banging the drums of war, they can stop now.

Neither country can afford a like-for-like response that would jeopardise delicate mutual interests.

For Britain, there are dual-national prisoners. British diplomats appear to feel a deal to release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Anousheh Ashoori, and Morad Tahbaz is closer than ever.

Iran for its part has signalled it wants to get US sanctions lifted, which implies both countries returning to compliance with the JCPOA nuclear deal.

With an economic crisis spiralling out of control, it cannot afford to sink those talks now.

Those tricky nuclear talks are also a priority for Britain, which has been desperately urging Washington and Tehran to get back on board with the deal ever since Donald Trump ripped it up in 2018.

The change of government in Tehran makes those considerations more delicate than ever.

Ebrahim Raisi was inaugurated by Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, on Tuesday and will finally be sworn in by Iran’s parliament, and present his picks for cabinet ministers, on Thursday. No one yet knows exactly what his foreign policy will look like.

Was the fatal attack on the MV Mercer Street a sign of a more maximalist and confrontational foreign policy for the coming four years, or just an unfortunate miscalculation?

That's a question British ministers and diplomats will want a clear answer to before they take any action that could unnecessarily poison relations with the new president.

So what options does that leave?

On Wednesday morning, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, announced that Britain, Romania, and Liberia had sent a letter to the chairman of the United Nations Security Council. The UK will raise the issue at a UNSC session on Friday. That is a significant step up from tough rhetoric or sternly worded statements of concern.

But it is well short of a kinetic response. Even a high-level cyber attack, which would clearly be attributable to the UK, was unlikely, said Aniseh Tabrizi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

“There is going to be a very delicate and very difficult balance between being tough and singling out those responsible but also keeping the door open to ensure that if there is an opportunity to address all the issues, this is going to happen – so that it is not the UK that shuts the door to the possibility of dialogue and compromise, and resolution of questions from the nuclear issue to the prisoners,” she said.

That would be consistent with the UK response to similar incidents.

When Iran seized the Stena Impero, a British flagged tanker in 2019, Britain was vocally critical but allowed the case to be resolved diplomatically.

When a British soldier was killed in a rocket attack on a US base in Iraq by an Iranian-backed militia in March 2020, the UK was content to voice support for a retaliatory US airstrike on the group’s arms stores – but took no direct action against Iran of its own.

And when Russia killed one woman and nearly fatally poisoned three others in the Salisbury Novichok attack in 2018, Britain rallied its allies and got 153 Russian diplomats and suspected spies kicked out of capitals around the world. But it did not resort to a revenge chemical murder.

Much is still unclear about both the attack on the MV Mercer Street.

brahim Raisi meeting with the national taskforce for fighting coronavirus following his inauguration - AFP
brahim Raisi meeting with the national taskforce for fighting coronavirus following his inauguration - AFP

But the most likely explanation is that it was latest blow in an Israeli-Iranian “shadow war” of non-attributable attacks, including on shipping, that has intensified in the past six months.

The deaths of British and Romanian crew members were probably unintentional – although that does not excuse the recklessness of firing drones at the living quarters of a civilian ship.

Britain and Romania will seek to extract a high diplomatic price for such recklessness – one punishing enough to make Mr Raisi’s government think again about launching similar attacks.

For all the reasons listed above, British officials will be allergic to getting involved in a shadow war of their own.

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