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Britain's Top Security Advisers Condemn Iran's Seizure Of A British-Flagged Ship

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

All right, so your move, Britain. As we just heard, the official response to Iran's seizing a British-flagged ship is a statement of strong condemnation. No diplomatic measures, no economic measures have been announced - no sanctions, no kicking out diplomats. But who knows? The fact is Jeremy Hunt, the foreign minister we just heard there, is not 100% sure he will still be in the job by the end of this week. For that matter, it's not 100% clear who will be prime minister or defense secretary either. In other words, it is shaping up to be quite the week in Britain. And for more on that, let's bring in Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, who is in London.

Hi there.

JONATHAN FREEDLAND: Hello there.

KELLY: Hi. So quite how unsettled do things feel in London tonight?

FREEDLAND: It is a week of transition. On Tuesday, the country will know who the next prime minister will be because there's been a leadership contest within the ruling Conservative Party. It is either the man you referred to, Jeremy Hunt, or his rival Boris Johnson, who will be known as the former, very flamboyant mayor of London and then briefly a predecessor of Jeremy Hunt's foreign secretary.

Most people - it seems pretty certain - tip Johnson to take over. But that won't even happen for another 24 hours after that on the Wednesday. And it means there is this kind of odd interregnum. In the United States, you have a three-month transition. We have this one over a period of hours.

KELLY: Right.

FREEDLAND: But it means over this week, there is a degree of uncertainty.

KELLY: I was in London over the weekend and poring over all of your newspapers. The headlines were all about Iran and fears of war. It made me wonder, do political leaders, whoever they may be by the end of the week in the U.K. - do they even have the headspace to think about anything besides Brexit?

FREEDLAND: I think there is very little bandwidth for anything but Brexit. Indeed, one of the pitches for the job that Boris Johnson has been making is let's get this out of the way so that we can get on with other things. People are sick and tired of it.

KELLY: On Iran, how isolated is Britain? How isolated does it feel? I'm thinking of - this is a former empire, a great power that is in the throes of a nasty divorce with the EU. And relationship with its great ally, the U.S., is unpredictable, let's say.

FREEDLAND: That's right. I think this Iran issue has brought into very sharp relief quite what a big - and if you ask me - mistaken strategic choice Brexit would be because here's a crisis where the options available are really quite binary. Either you go with what Donald Trump wants us to - and has withdrawn the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and wants the Europeans to go the same way. Or you side with the Europeans, who want to maintain that deal.

And Britain so far, because it wasn't really involved in negotiating that Iran nuclear deal, wants that to persist and looks for allies. And yet right now the Europeans are looking at Britain, saying, I thought you were out of the door. And yet the Americans are saying, if you want protection of your ships - Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, said just today that's something you, the U.K., better sort out. We're not going to cover your back. So there's a kind of isolation there, a loneliness there.

KELLY: It's just a remarkable thing to think that we might be sitting here in the summer of 2019 contemplating a Britain - not sure what allies it can count on, if any.

FREEDLAND: No. I mean, foreign policy barely featured in the referendum campaign of three years ago, and yet it's a massive call because Britain has, in the phrase, punched above its weight since 1945 partly because it had good historic links with the United States. But also, it was embedded in this close network of alliances and relationships with the European Union. By wrenching itself from that, does it become not only weaker but less strategically valuable even to the United States if we're no longer part of that European Union? These are big judgments, and yet they barely featured in the debates so far.

KELLY: Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian speaking with us from an unsettled London tonight.

Jonathan Freedland, thank you.

FREEDLAND: Many thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.