World

Iran tensions increase. Jacinda Ardern tightens gun controls. Hong Kong protests continue. Boris Johnson begins as Britain’s PM. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Ardern has gun law reform in her sights

The prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern.
Credit: Raphaël Lafargue / ABACA

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Iran: Almost a fifth of the world’s oil used each day passes through the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow stretch of water that connects the Persian Gulf to the open seas. The strait has two shipping lanes, each about three kilometres wide.

Iran has repeatedly warned that it could close the strait and has threatened to do so in retaliation at tough sanctions imposed by Donald Trump. The sanctions were imposed after Trump withdrew last year from a nuclear deal with Iran.

In recent weeks, Iran has been showing it can deliver on this threat. On July 19, high-speed Iranian military vessels surrounded a British-flagged oil tanker, Stena Impero, as it was travelling through the strait. An English-speaking Iranian officer was recorded saying in a radio call to the tanker: “If you obey you will be safe. Alter your course to 360 degrees immediately.”

Masked Iranian troops then descended by rope from a helicopter and seized the ship, taking it to an Iranian port. Iran claimed it was responding to the British capture of an Iranian-flagged ship off Gibraltar. Britain said the ship was delivering oil to Syria in breach of a European Union embargo.

The capture of the ship and its crew of 23, described by Britain as “state piracy”, marked a worsening of tensions in the gulf.

Earlier this year, the United States began sending extra forces to the region after accusing Iran of sabotaging tankers. Iran then shot down an American drone, prompting Trump to order an airstrike, which he claimed he called off minutes before the launch.

Trump believes crippling sanctions, including blocking oil exports, will force Iran to agree to a more stringent nuclear deal. Iran says it regards the measures as “economic warfare”.

Trump does not want a war with Iran, though many of his advisers are less reluctant, particularly John Bolton, the national security adviser. According to an Axios report this week, Trump recently said in the Oval Office: “John has never seen a war he doesn’t like.”

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

New Zealand: In October 2017, police officers in New Zealand from a “firearms vetting team” turned up at a house in Dunedin to meet with an Australian man who had applied for a gun licence. They interviewed him, checked that his home was secure, and approved the licence in November. A month later, the man, a white supremacist and active social media user, bought the first of five weapons – two semi-automatic rifles, two shotguns and a lever-action firearm – that he allegedly used earlier this year to kill 51 people in a mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch.

On Monday, New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, introduced new gun laws to tighten screening and stop “firearms falling into the wrong hands”. The laws allow police to remove licences from people based on concerns about their mental health or social media activity. And owners will have to renew licences every five years instead of 10.

Noting New Zealand has no US-style constitutional right to bear arms, Ardern said that “owning a firearm is a privilege”.

The laws also include a ban on selling guns to overseas visitors and a register to track all firearms in the country. These follow laws introduced immediately after the attack to ban semi-automatic guns and to introduce a buyback and amnesty scheme. Since the buyback began two weeks ago, about 3300 guns have been destroyed. The scheme continues until December. New Zealand has a population of fewer than five million people and an estimated 1.5 million guns.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Hong Kong: Each Sunday for the past seven weeks, pro-democracy protesters have marched in Hong Kong to oppose the pro-Beijing local government and its recent proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China.

Last Sunday, at a train station in the district of Yuen Long, near the Chinese mainland border, a group of protesters were returning home when a gang of men, wearing masks and white T-shirts, rushed onto the platform and into train carriages and attacked the crowds with metal pipes and bamboo rods. At least 45 people were taken to hospital.

On Monday, police arrested six of the attackers, saying several had “triad backgrounds”. This led to concerns that the group was hired by pro-Beijing officials. In the past, triads, or organised crime syndicates, have been paid to attack pro-democracy protesters in the city. They have also been used as so-called thugs-for-hire in mainland China, often to help with house evictions or confront petitioners.

The attack last Sunday occurred hours after protesters defaced China’s national emblem at the Chinese government’s office in Hong Kong. Chinese state media said this “crossed the bottom line”.

Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader, Carrie Lam, who is facing widespread calls to resign, denied colluding with the attackers. A video showed a pro-Beijing legislator, Junius Ho, meeting with the mob in Yuen Long, shaking their hands and praising them. Later, he said that “hitting people is wrong”. On Monday, his office was reportedly attacked.

The violence marks a dark turn for the former British colony, whose population fears Beijing is seeking to undermine their democratic rights under the “one country, two systems” arrangement.

The mob attack appears to have been designed to intimidate. But more protests have been planned, including a march this weekend to the Yuen Long train station.

SPOTLIGHT: Boris now PM

Britain: Keith Simpson, a military historian and relatively unknown British politician, has represented the constitutents of Broadland in his home county of Norfolk for 22 years. Until last week, the 70-year-old had never voted against his party. But he recently joined almost 50 Conservative MPs who, in anticipation of Boris Johnson becoming prime minister, voted to prevent Johnson from imposing a no-deal Brexit without parliament’s consent.

“This is the first time I have rebelled, but you can get a taste for it,” he said after the vote.

On Tuesday, as Johnson was celebrating his victory in the Conservative leadership contest, Simpson staged his second protest.

During Johnson’s address to the Conservative party room in the house of commons, Simpson walked out, telling the waiting media that he “couldn’t take any more”.

“The circus has come to town,” he said.

Johnson has fulfilled his lifelong ambition to become prime minister – actually, as a child he wanted to be “world king” – but now faces the near-impossible challenge that led to the resignation of his predecessor, Theresa May.

He must try to remove Britain from the European Union, despite deep divisions within his party, the parliament, and the country, over how, or whether, to exit. Johnson insists that Brexit must be achieved by October 31. He says he is open to a no-deal, despite warnings that the sudden halt to existing arrangements with the EU could lead to shortages of food and medicine, and cause chaos for travellers and the overall economy. And it is not clear how he will overcome the existing impasse over the future border between Ireland, which will remain an EU member, and Northern Ireland, which will not.

Johnson’s cartoonish antics have added levity to a grim era in British history. But, as prominent MP Amber Rudd warned, his plans will now “collide with reality”.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 27, 2019 as "Ardern has gun law reform in her sights". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.