British prime minister Boris Johnson has called for a “Trump deal” with Iran, praising the US president as the “one guy” who can negotiate a new nuclear pact in a major shift that aligns London more closely with Washington in its approach to the escalating crisis in the Gulf.
Speaking to Sky News from New York, where he is attending the UN General Assembly, Mr Johnson said: “Whatever your objections to the old nuclear deal with Iran, it’s time now to move forward and do a new deal.”
In a later interview with NBC, Mr Johnson elaborated: “If it was a bad deal — and I’m willing to accept that, it had many, many defects — then let’s do a better deal.
“And I think there’s one guy who can do a better deal and one guy who understands how to get a difficult partner like Iran over the line and that is the president of the United States. So I hope that there will be a Trump deal, to be totally honest with you.”
His comments are a departure from the UK position that it was fully committed to the 2015 nuclear deal following Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the accord last year. The UK has also not backed the imposition of crippling US sanctions on Tehran and was working with the other European signatories — France and Germany — to de-escalate tensions between Iran and the US and prevent the collapse of the deal.
Mr Trump welcomed the comments from Mr Johnson, praising his British counterpart as being “very smart, very tough” on the Iran situation.
“That’s why he’s a winner and that’s why he’s going to be successful in the UK,” Mr Trump said at the UN.
Ever since Mr Johnson became prime minister in July and vowed to take the UK out of the EU, there has been speculation that he would align the UK more towards the Trump administration’s policies.
Mr Johnson believes he can act as a mediator between the EU and Mr Trump on Iran, stroking the ego of the US president in a way that would be uncomfortable for German’s Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron of France.
Mr Johnson’s call for a “Trump deal” with Iran fits into that framework. “We have a role to serve as a bridge between our European friends and the Americans on the crisis in the Gulf,” he said.
It was unclear if Mr Johnson had co-ordinated the shift with his European partners or whether it marked a move from Germany and France, which had been stepping up efforts to keep the 2015 deal intact. The three countries issued a joint statement on Monday blaming Iran for the damaging attack on Saudi oil facilities on September 14 and urging Tehran to adhere to its commitments to curb its nuclear activities.
“It is clear to us that Iran bears responsibility for this attack. There is no other plausible explanation,” the statement said.
“We are committed to continuing our diplomatic efforts to create conditions and facilitate dialogue with all relevant partners interested in de-escalation of tensions in the Middle East.”
Mr Macron has been trying for months to persuade the US and Iran to end the Gulf crisis by talking to each other and working towards a settlement. He proposed providing Iran with a $15bn credit line to make up for the loss in oil revenues because of US sanctions. But a Trump administration move last week to increase sanctions on the Iranian central bank seemed to signal that the US would not support that idea.
The French plan, if successful, would mean Mr Trump easing his policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran through economic sanctions while Iran would in turn relax its “maximum resistance” against the US and its allies such as Saudi Arabia.
French officials have said one way to “de-escalate” tensions would be for Mr Trump to meet Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, and forge a “new deal” as he has tried to do with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Britain had previously joined the US in blaming the Islamic republic for sabotage attacks on six vessels in the Gulf in May and June in contrast to other European powers, which were more cautious. But it insisted that was a distinct issue to the nuclear deal.
Even after Iran seized a British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz — an apparent act of retaliation after British commandos helped detain an Iranian tanker — British officials continued to reiterate London’s commitment to the nuclear deal.
Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, last month said the accord was “the only deal on the table that prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and we will continue working together to encourage Iran to uphold the agreement in full”.
The UK had also previously been wary of the notion of trying to negotiate a grand bargain to encompass all the west’s main concerns relating to Iran — its nuclear ambitions, the development of the Islamic republic’s ballistic missile programme and its support for militant groups across the Middle East. When the accord was negotiated, the priority was to prevent an arms race in the region, rather than focus on the other issues, which Tehran deems central to its national security.
Iran would not agree to concessions on issues it considers central to its national security.
An Iranian regime insider doubted other European signatories to the nuclear deal would join Mr Johnson and suggested that the Islamic republic would therefore stay in the deal. Iran has repeatedly said it would not enter any negotiations with the US while Washington continued its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.
Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said the UK shift appeared to be a “real sea change”. She said that until now there had been an attempt by the UK, France and Germany to make sure their policy towards Iran was aligned in managing the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
“At this point, it’s inconceivable that the Iranians would negotiate in any serious way over an entirely new framework, either around the nuclear issue or broader concerns,” said Ms Maloney.
Additional reporting by Aime Williams in Washington, Victor Mallet in Paris and Michael Peel in Brussels
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi