Iran and a trade deal. The 26 July exchange could not have deferred more to Trump.
But, as far as first conversations between Britain’s newly elected premier with his American counterpart, it couldn’t have been more Boris Johnson, either.
With tensions rising in the Persian Gulf and Washington unclear about its intentions, the crisis was bound to amplify his proclivity to inconsistency.
While Boris Johnson has praised the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal, as it is formally called) and has repeatedly ruled out military action against the Islamic Republic, he has also warned Tehran against leaving the deal and vowed to “constrain Iran’s disruptive behaviour in the region”.
Until now, Johnson’s public statements have supported EU efforts to salvage what it could from the JCPOA and focused keenly on diplomacy as the way to resolve the growing tensions.
But as prime minister, he faces a new set of pressures from the United Kingdom’s other partner, the United States.
The prospect of a no-deal Brexit has amplified his dependency on Washington to help cushion Britain from the crash that will inevitably follow.
Johnson’s determination to forge a replacement trade deal hovers over every corner of his foreign policy endeavours, including Iran.
Donald Trump has indicated he expects Johnson to support him in the Persian Gulf in exchange. The question is how.
The president has imposed unilateral sanctions on Tehran which, coupled with the threat to punish any country breaching US restrictions on Iran, are strangling its economy.
Predictably, the strategy is backfiring, causing great hardship, but solidifying public support for a defiant stance.
The Iranian government has carefully escalated that defiance, pushing just a little further day by day, to demonstrate that it will fight back, and as a signal to the European Union that Brussels must act to reinforce the terms of the JCPOA to avoid further escalation.
It’s a dangerous game, where one misstep could lead to a bloody war.
Donald Trump has sent strong signals that he doesn’t want one.
The common and simplistic theory that US presidents court wars in reelection years doesn’t hold with this president, whose base is largely against a new conflict in the Middle East.
But many in Trump’s administration, and in the think tank and media circles that have his ear, feel very differently.
Some—like his National Security Adviser, John Bolton—are not averse to manipulating evidence or even circumstances to pursue regime change in Iran.
Boris Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, left him a much more complicated situation in the Middle East than the one she had received from David Cameron.
Britain has stood apart from most of the EU in supporting the US in its escalation with Iran.
For example, the UK was quick to support Washington’s claim of Iranian responsibility for an apparent attack on a Japanese tanker in June, while much of the world was sceptical.
More pointedly, the Royal Navy captured an Iranian supertanker in Gibraltar in July that it claimed was in violation of EU sanctions against Syria, prompting Iran to retaliate by capturing the UK flagged Stena Imperio in the Strait of Hormuz.
The current stalemate, which some analysts believe the UK initiated at the behest of the United States, is volatile, although the absence of any its citizens on the captured British ship means it is not as bad as it could be.
Boris Johnson now faces a conundrum, as this standoff will represent his first real challenge in foreign affairs and he cannot afford to look weak.
But an overly aggressive style that raises tensions is just what his critics have worried Johnson would display as prime minister.
The Tory premier’s vulnerability to Washington’s whims is even keener due to his lack of a majority in parliament, a deficit starker than the one that fell Theresa May.
Most of the experienced ministerial hands were let go by Johnson last week, replaced by militant Leavers in Tea Party drag.
See my colleague Josh White’s article, Ideal Tory Subjects, which details the extremist politics of Johnson’s new cabinet hires.
If White’s analysis is our guide, Britain’s new government is too ideologically close to the Americans to act independently.
Indeed, the one thing Boris Johnson can sell is his warm relationship with Donald Trump, which is in sharp contrast with May who was frequently the target of Trump’s boorish barbs.
A falling out with the US president, something which often happens out of the blue, would make Johnson’s Brexit push even harder.
The Tory premier has another reason to widen the space for diplomacy with Iran.
Boris Johnson’s tenure as Foreign Secretary was marred by many blunders.
None was bigger than the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual citizen who was arrested in April 2016 as she was preparing to return home to the UK following a trip to see her family.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was accused of spying for the British government, perhaps because of her employment with Reuters and, previously, with the BBC, although she isn’t a journalist.
As the British government fought to free Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Johnson stated, wrongly, that she had been arrested whilst teaching journalism in Iran.
The mistake clearly undermined her efforts to get released and was used in court four days later as she was pleading her case.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is still serving her five-year sentence. Boris Johnson would love to mitigate this black mark on his record by returning her to the UK.
The question is who is more important: the United States or a British citizen.
If Donald Trump can get Johnson to do his bidding in the Persian Gulf, Zaghari-Ratcliffe would be effectively abandoned to her fate.
Given the United Kingdom’s eagerness to help lead a European naval force in the Persian Gulf, it is more likely the UK will choose Trump.
As of the time of this article’s writing, the British government was failing to make headway with Berlin.
Predictably, according to German press reports, the Americans had stepped in to get Angela Merkel to comply.
The way the US request was conveyed, it was difficult to tell whether it was Washington or London that had initiated the operation.
“We’ve formally asked Germany to join France and the UK to help secure the Strait of Hormuz and combat Iranian aggression,” a US embassy spokesperson told DPA.
On 24 July, Nils Schmid, a German MP and member of the governing centre-left SPD party, told the Financial Times that Germany would not send any vessels to join the British mission.
“The danger of getting dragged into a military confrontation is too great,” he said.
If only Boris Johnson had the freedom to make that decision.
Blame it on the importance the American government has assigned to Brexit.
Photograph courtesy of the US Navy/Daniel Barker. Published under a Creative Commons license.