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Echoes of Iraq

Why Australia shouldn't be joining US action against Iran

Paul Barratt

A crowning diplomatic achievement of the Obama Administration was the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran, under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear industrial program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

Despite Iran’s complete and verified compliance with the JCPOA, in May 2018 President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement, imposed economic sanctions, and threatened countries that trade with Iran.

Since that withdrawal, tensions between the US and Iran have grown to crisis point. Attacks on shipping in the Gulf have been blamed on Iran without robust evidence. Key US administration officials, if not President Trump himself, appear to be itching for military conflict and therefore the US version of events cannot be taken at face value as a justification for military action – remember the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

Yet Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds have announced that Australia will contribute to the Trump-led mission in the Strait of Hormuz. Morrison says Australia will help ensure freedom of navigation in international waters and that we are acting in response to what he calls 'destabilising behaviour' in the Gulf. Reynolds says our core concern is de-escalation.

Let’s be clear: the destabilising behaviour was in fact initiated by our ally, the US, and sending additional troops, planes and ships into an increasingly tense situation is not a move likely to de-escalate tensions.

On June 28 I wrote to the Prime Minister on behalf of Australians for War Powers Reform, urging that Australia resist such pressure for action against Iran. I appealed to him for a debate in our Parliament on the growing tensions between the US and Iran and steps that Australia could take to reduce them.

The reply, from Assistant Minister Ben Morton, appeared to be a lesson in turning facts upside down. Morton noted with concern 'that Iran has moved away from full compliance' with plan of action, and reassured us that 'Australia has repeatedly urged Iran to comply with its JCPOA commitments'.

Totally absent was any recognition that President Trump withdrew from the agreement last year. Perhaps it is not surprising that Iranian enthusiasm for compliance has waned in recent months.

Morton stated that the government has urged Iran 'to refrain from escalatory action'. But not only has Australia not called on our ally to do the same, we have just made a decision to join the US in its escalatory actions.

Australia should not participate in any military action against Iran, nor should we be participating in other actions such as economic sanctions or escorting tankers, which are themselves – or could be perceived by Iran to be – hostile acts. Authentic attempts to de-escalate are required, not escalation.

The ANZUS alliance creates no obligation for us to support foolish and illegal acts, and its Article 1 echoes our obligations under the UN Charter to settle international disputes by peaceful means. In the absence of a credible threat to Australia and without an authorising resolution of the UN Security Council, any Australian involvement in attacks on Iran would be an act of aggression and therefore illegal.

Iran is a member in good standing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and as such is entitled not only to have a nuclear program for peaceful purposes, but to seek the assistance of the nuclear powers to develop that program. Not only has the West declined to assist Iran, but it has actively sought to thwart its program in every way possible.

All evidence indicates that Iran has not sought to develop a nuclear weapons capability. A 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate stated as the first of its key judgements: 'We judge with high confidence that in Fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.'

The incoming Obama administration was briefed in similar vein by intelligence agencies in 2009. From 2015 the government of Iran fully observed the terms of the JCPOA, as verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency under what the agency describes as the most robust verification system in existence anywhere in the world. As late as January 29 this year, in their annual report to Congress on global threats, the US intelligence chiefs told Congress the Iran nuclear deal was working.

Australia has no quarrel with Iran. To participate in sanctions is to agree that there are grounds for sanctions. There aren’t. They imply a willingness to use force – with what end in sight?

Hostile actions that draw Iran into armed conflict are not in our national interests, the interests of the Australian Defence Force personnel who would undertake such actions, or the civilians (in this case Iranian) who bear the major brunt of modern wars (and of economic sanctions).

Any significant military action would, again, set the Middle East ablaze for many years. Iran, a country of 80 million people, has substantial capacity to resist and retaliate, as could Iranian proxies elsewhere in the Middle East. There could be heightened tensions between the Shi’a minorities and the governments in the Sunni world.

Australia has a long and honourable history of effective diplomacy. The continuity of our diplomatic presence in Iran has enabled us to communicate with the Iranians in a way that few other Western nations could. We should be engaging in active diplomacy to encourage all parties to the JCPOA to keep the arrangements alive, to encourage our US ally to resume its place in the arrangements.

Iran announced on Monday it had amassed more low-enriched uranium than permitted under its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, its first major step beyond the terms of the pact since the United States pulled out of it more than a year ago.

I again call on the Prime Minister to hold a debate in our Parliament before the ADF is deployed. It is imperative that no military action – or any hostile action that could foreseeably lead to military action – be undertaken before such a debate occurs, along with a vote by all our elected representatives. A further prerequisite to military action is authorisation by the Governor-General, as the only person with the constitutional power to authorise the deployment of the ADF into international armed conflict.

Australian foreign policy should be made by Australians, not by the incumbent of the White House who has trashed one of the best examples in recent years of what diplomacy can achieve.


Paul Barratt AO is a former Department of Defence secretary and a deputy secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He is the president of Australians for War Powers Reform and an adjunct professor in the School of the Humanities at the University of New England. This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 22 August 2019 and is reproduced with the kind permission of the author.


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