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  • Iran Exposes Boris Johnson's Brexit Bombast

    (Bloomberg Opinion) -- Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin may be the world masters of the tactic, but Boris Johnson also understands the appeal of diversionary foreign policy. He made a career out of picking fights with the European Union - winning validation in the 2016 Brexit referendum and, very likely, in soon becoming his party’s choice to succeed Prime Minister Theresa May.Now, however, Johnson stands to inherit a foreign policy crisis that makes an already difficult job a lot harder.Britain’s Royal Navy, once a maritime force to be reckoned with, was caught off guard on Friday as Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops in ski masks rappelled onto the decks of the Stena Impero, a U.K.-flagged tanker. The ship may even have been diverted off course by Russian “spoofing” - providing false GPS coordinates. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, as my colleague David Fickling notes: Iran all but gave the date and time of its retaliatory move after Britain, earlier this month, interdicted an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar, which the U.K. alleged was carrying oil to Syria in contravention of EU sanctions. Britain’s lack of preparation has dealt May’s successor an immediate foreign policy nightmare.In dealing with the crisis, Johnson couldn’t ask for a worse set of cards. His Conservative Party has a razor-thin governing majority (depending on the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party) that may well disappear if there are enough defections over his hard-line Brexit stance. And, Brexit aside, lawmakers are already inclined to regard his statements with suspicion, given the series of gaffes he committed as foreign secretary - including one that likely worsened the plight of the British-Iranian mother Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been jailed in Iran.Johnson has a friend in Donald Trump, but he should be under no illusions that the U.S. will grant him any favors without asking for something in return. The U.S. is already at loggerheads with the U.K. government over Iran policy - in part because Johnson, as foreign secretary, opposed Trump’s abandoning the Iran nuclear deal. It doesn’t help matters that diplomatic cables critical of Trump from the former ambassador to the U.S. were recently leaked. On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made clear that responsibility “falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships.”Normally in a crisis, Britain would depend heavily on the EU for political and material backup. But EU-U.K. relations are strained by Johnson’s determination to exit the EU on Oct. 31 “come what may” - a promise that weakens EU security and threatens to plunge Ireland, Britain’s neighbor and an EU member state, into a profound economic crisis.You might think Brexit would have nothing to do with defense matters. May herself has clearly stated that Brexit would never get in the way of Britain’s close security partnership with Europe. And Brexiters often argue that the EU is too dependent on British intelligence and military power to weaken those ties.But, as May has learned the hard way, non-members cannot plug into the EU’s security and defense policies in the same way member states can. The U.K. has already been kicked off the Galileo satellite program, the EU equivalent of the U.S. GPS navigation system. When U.K. Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt, Johnson’s opponent in the Conservative leadership race, proposes that Britain and the EU cooperate in monitoring the Strait of Hormuz, questions about the terms of such cooperation immediately arise.Johnson may seek to somehow use the crisis to his advantage - but where is his leverage?Brexit is being sold not merely as a way to escape EU regulations and control immigration, but also as a way to revive Britain’s global destiny, invoking an era when the Royal Navy ruled the waves.But that picture is hardly recognizable at the moment. The Royal Navy is in a state of severe decline, in number of both vessels and personnel. Even if plans for new ships are realized, the total will remain fewer than what Britain had in 2013. The outgoing government is sending the destroyer HMS Duncan to the Persian Gulf, but only to relieve the HMS Montrose, a much older ship that’s due for repairs. Less than half of Britain’s 19 destroyers and frigates are operational.  This weakness cannot be laid at Johnson’s door. He can even be expected to try to reverse it over time (though it was Hunt who argued during the campaign for more defense spending). Yet Johnson’s crash-out, no-deal Brexit would be the most costly of all Brexit options. To win support, he has promised handouts, including tax cuts for the relatively wealthy. It’s doubtful there will be money enough left to boost defense spending.For all these reasons, the Iran crisis is the opposite of a useful foreign-policy diversion. It shows up every weakness that Johnson inherits, and highlights the new ones he brings to the job.To contact the author of this story: Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.netTo contact the editor responsible for this story: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.netThis column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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