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News 20 January 2020, at 10:33

UK-US relations: Challenges ahead

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 The past few days have been witness, to some important statements made in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Program for Action (JCPOA) — also referred to as the Iran Nuclear deal. US allies, including the UK and some EU member states do not seem to be in agreement with the US President’s Iran policy in general, and his inclination towards scrapping JCPOA altogether.

 Boris Johnson’s interviews and his comments on the JCPOA

In an interview to the BBC on January 14, 2020, British PM, Boris Johnson stated, that the JCPOA, could be renegotiated, and seemed to be accommodative towards Trump. Said Johnson:

‘Let’s work together to replace the JCPOA and get the Trump deal instead’.

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Johnson’s remarks came a day after UK, Germany and France had issued a joint statement, stating that all three countries were totally in favor of keeping the JCPOA alive.UK Germany and France had also said, that they were keen to ensure, that the nuclear non -proliferation regime is kept intact, and Iran is prevented from developing nuclear weapons.

Earlier, in a telephonic conversation, last week, with the UK PM, US President Donald Trump, had told Johnson, that the deal was ‘foolish’, and other signatories should also walk out of it.

During the course of his interview with the BBC, which happened to be the first interview with the media, after the victory of the Conservative Party in the recent general elections. Johnson, while having a dig at Trump, said that the US President thought himself of as a good negotiator, as did many others.

Johnson also made the point, that the current deal, had been negotiated by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and alluded to the point, that this was one of the key reasons, why Trump wanted to renegotiate the JCPOA.

Members of Johnson’s cabinet and their comments on the Iran deal

UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, while criticizing Iran for failing to meet with the compliances related to the JCPOA, also stated, that the UK is keen to keep the deal intact.

Before Raab, another member of Johnson’s cabinet, the British Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace had also indulged in some straight talk, lambasting the Trump administration for its increasingly isolationist approach towards global issues, and Trump’s tendency of taking Washington’s allies for granted. Wallace had also stated, that US support for UK’s coalition should not be taken for granted.

Responses of Trump and Rouhani to Johnson’s remarks

US President, Donald Trump’s response, to Johnson’s suggestion, regarding a fresh JCPOA was predictable, and welcomed the British PM’s proposal.

In the meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in an aggressive address, on January 15, 2020, where he lashed out at the EU and UK, said, that all Trump knew, was violation of contracts, so there was no question of a new Iran deal.

UK-US relations

Interestingly, Johnson in his interview to the BBC, had also said, that there was no real need for the UK to have been informed in advance by the US, with regard to the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. It would be pertinent to point out, that not just members of the Labor Party, but even a senior Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, also a former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized the US for not consulting the UK.

This brings us, to another important point. While Johnson’s main challenge is perceived to be the withdrawal of UK, from the EU by January 31, 2020. There are likely to be important differences between Washington and London over dealing with Iran. A close advisor of US President Donald Trump, has already stated, that if Johnson wants a UK-US Free Trade deal, UK should immediately pull out of the Iran deal. Richard Goldberg, who until recently was a member of the White House national security council (NSC) expressed these views while speaking to BBC.

US-UK FTA and Trump’s support for the same

Trump has been in favor of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with UK (which happens to be the 5th largest trading partner of the US) for some time. In fact, in his congratulatory tweet to Boris Johnson after his victory in December 2019, Trump had said that Britain and the U.S. will now be able to forge a significant new Trade Deal after Brexit.

At the G7 Summit in 2019, Trump had spoken about how the US would sign a path breaking trade deal with the UK, post Brexit. It has been argued, that while the Conservative lobby, in the US-UK, which has been in favor of bilateral FTA, there are lobbies in both countries, which are fervently opposed to such an idea.

It also remains to be seen, whether the Trump Administration is serious, about imposing conditionalities on UK regarding the FTA — such as, supporting the US stance vis-à-vis Iran. Given the reactions by some members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet (to Trump’s handling of the Iran issue), it is tough to really predict the UK’s reaction.

Not just Iran, US-UK also differ over Huawei

Apart from the Iran issue, one issue which could act as an impediment to further consolidating economic and strategic relations between US and UK could be use of equipment of Chinese tech giant, Huawei, by UK for the development of next-generation 5G wireless networks.

Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May had stated, that non-core technology of 5G were acceptable, while core parts would be banned. At a meeting of the National Security council (NSC) in 2019, some of May’s colleagues including — Jeremy Hunt, then Foreign secretary, Sajid Javid, then Home Secretary (now treasury secretary), Gavin Williamson, then Defense Secretary, and Penny Mordaunt, then international development secretary — had opposed May’s decision. Interestingly, Williamson had been sacked for allegedly leaking the proceedings of the meeting.

Johnson’s approach towards Huawei

In the interview to BBC, Johnson stated, that he did not want to jeopardize cooperation with any of the other “5 Eyes Intelligence alliance partners” (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US are the other members of this network, apart from the US). While hinting at the US stand on Huawei, Johnson said, that those criticizing one technology also needed to provide an alternative.

Differences between US and other allies over other crucial economic and strategic issues

It is not just UK, but other allies like India which would be closely watching Trumps approach on crucial geo-political issues. For instance, while earlier US had stated, that it would get a waiver from CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), even if it went ahead with the purchase of S400 Missiles from Russia (India and Russia had signed an agreement in October 2018 during Russian President, Vladimir Putin’s . Only recently, a State Department Spokesman while commenting on the waiver to India stated that there was no blanket waiver from the side of the US Administration. Of course later, the State Department Spokesperson did clarify, that US views these issues on a case by case basis.

Conclusion

If one were to look at the scenario for bilateral relations between UK and US (defined as a ‘special relationship’ first by Winston Churchill in 1946) there are numerous challenges.

There is a tendency, to oversimplify bilateral relationships to personal chemistry of leaders, and ideological inclinations as in the case of Johnson and Trump. There are likely, to be a number of obstacles which may come in the way of the bilateral relationship (differences over crucial geo-political and economic issues as discussed above). In addition to this, there is a note of caution for other allies like EU member states (especially Germany and France), Canada, Japan which have already born the brunt of Trump’s insular economic policies, and his myopic and transaction approach towards complex geo-political issues.

Tridivesh Singh Maini
New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India

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