American attitude of “exceptionalism” sometimes works: Busvine

Although there are clear problems with the attitude of the US that it is “different” and therefore has to go about things in its own way, the fact of the matter is that sometimes this attitude works, and perhaps the world would be a less safe place if the US did not take this line, according to Nick Busvine, a partner and consultant in emerging markets at Herminius and a 29-year veteran diplomat of the UK Foreign Office.

Speaking at independent broker Lockton’s seminar this week as part of London International Shipping Week, Navigating Difficult Waters: How Sanctions And Wars Are Impacting The Shipping World, Busvine said that the big picture was that military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan had failed to deliver the results that were hoped for, “to put it kindly”.

Busvine said that two obvious problems with sanctions were that, if you were not prepared to back them up with force, the question arises as to what would happen if your bluff was called. He accepted that effective Sanctions tended to be multilateral rather than bilateral.

However, he said that sometimes the unilateral decisions of the US had delivered a desirable outcome, such as the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia. “There it is only really US exceptionalism that has held criminals to account, and if the US gave up on that we might notice it.”

Busvine felt it clear that the Americans did not believe that the Iranians could be trusted. “I think if Iran were to get a nuclear weapon we would see dramatic consequences in the Gulf. The Saudis in particular would want a nuclear weapon. You would see a dangerous potential escalation.”

Busvine said that Iran was almost two states, “the relatively cuddly side and the real hard core”. The hard core side “has done nothing but won in recent years, winning in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, with the Houthis in Yemen”. They were used to winning. As the then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said, “however much people might not want war, there is a real risk of sliding into it.”

However, the “maximum pressure” strategy with Iran has led, not to capitulation, but to greater resistance. The earlier sanctions had reduced Iran’s oil exports from around 2.5m bpd to 1.1m bpd. With the aim to reduce exports to zero, only about 300,000 bpd were now getting through (with a recent Reuters report putting the number down as low as 100,000 bpd). Busvine observed that the Iranians are effectively saying “you cannot bleed us dry and expect us not to respond”. President Trump has intimated that he is prepared to sit down with Rahani, but Rahani has effectively responded  “over my dead body”. And, as Busvine observed “he is the nice guy”.

He concluded that the Middle East situation was a mess, and while the one bit of good news was that nobody really wanted a war, “given all the moving parts there is just a risk that you will engineer yourself into a situation where one will happen by accident”.

“Every conflict situation needs good people from a variety of places having enormous patience. It always takes 10 times longer than you anticipated. It requires carrot as well as stick. Perhaps for Trump the carrot is ‘you get to sit opposite me to cut a deal’.” Busvine suspected that at the moment the Iranians were looking for UK citizens to use as bargaining chips and that they were rather disappointed there were not any UK citizens on the seized UK-flagged vessel Stena Impero.