MIKE SCRAFTON. Iran, the US, and Australia

The Middle East situation now falls outside the province of rational analytical discourse. Small events might provoke unimaginably large and uncontrollable responses.

International law, norms, and rules are crumbling. The long feared Middle East mayhem seems to loom over the region. Australia’s deployments, alliance, and interests are not aligned.

That Trump is unhinged and a threat to global security is now unchallengeable. The assassination of General Qassem Soleimani was not strategic or legal. Trump’s threat to attack 52 targets of ‘a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture’, and to conduct military strikes on Iranian territory ‘perhaps in a disproportionate manner’ with ‘some of that brand new beautiful equipment’; announces that his Administration has gone rogue. Gone is all pretence that the US is the rational global leader in a rules-based international order.

Where Trump is reactive and thoughtless, the Iranians will be patient and prudent, but also determined and strategic. Trump’s mental state will weigh on decision-makers in Teheran. They know a war with the US can only be catastrophic for them. Iran’s leaders have effectively combined adroit diplomacy with nationalism while slowly and deliberately building up influence and power to ensure that another regional war does not threaten their security. They will not be foolish.

Restraining pro-Iranian and Shiite actors beyond their borders from taking actions that would provide Trump with justification for an attack will be a major concern. The proxies and surrogates the Iranians have nurtured throughout the region have the inherent capabilities for independent operations. Teheran would be acutely aware that Trump won’t require hard evidence of the regime’s hand behind any attack on Americans, and the mere fact of an attack would serve as evidence in itself.

The assassination can be used against the US’s interests by turning regional opinion against the US military presence. Not just in states where Iran already has significant influence. Most Arab states also host significant Shiite populations, particularly Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE. War anxiety, will have Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and other Gulf states examining the risks conflict poses to their vulnerable oil and gas infrastructure, therefore their wealth and the survival of their regimes.

Iran is theoretically the strongest military power in the Middle East. Although Saudi Arabia and the UAE are bigger investors in high tech military equipment, they will undoubtedly be reflecting on the failure of their sophisticated forces to succeed quickly in Yemen. The Iranians and their allies are an incomparably more formidable threat. For Arab states to distance themselves from the US, however, runs the risk of sparking Trump’s ire. All their options are unpalatable. It would be in Iran’s interest to continue to fuel this anxiety.

The assumption in the media is Iran would act without due consideration. It would be deeply underestimating the Iranians to think they weren’t aware of domestic politics in the US and in Europe. They will be monitoring Congressional and public opinion on Trump’s aggression in order to calibrate their words and actions. The US already stood alone internationally with regard to policy on Iran and the assassination has driven a bigger wedge between the US and its main allies. There will be opportunities for the Iranians to turn the assassination into a domestic political negative for Trump and a major strategic setback for the US.

Of course it could all go pear shaped. On either side. Independent actors might carry out lethal attacks on Americans somewhere proclaiming revenge or Trump might just act precipitously and instigate a war with Iran. In any event, the issues confronting the Australian government are very tricky.

There is a current risk of collateral damage to Australian military personnel and civilians integrated with US forces and collocated in embassies and headquarters. However, if the Iranians can be expected to be measured and strategic there is no need for an immediate withdrawal from the region. But planning for a draw down must begin. If a conflict breaks out spontaneously those troops and personnel in theatre will need to be brought out quickly.

Were the US to begin to plan for a major war with Iran, it is highly improbable that other NATO states, or East Asian allies like Japan or South Korea, would partake in such a conflict. The US would not be able to disguise its aggression as an act of the international community rather than that of a failing hegemon unless it could attract some states to a coalition. Would Australia find the strategic independence and political backbone to decline to participate?

Arguably, Australia had a national interest in seeing the end of ISIS. But there is no identifiable national security interest of Australia’s that would be achieved in a war in the Middle east. On the other hand, the belief that Australia’s security is inextricably dependent on US power and access to US technology, and that this requires following the US into every conflict, is a bipartisan article of faith in strategic policy.

Even if no conflict emerges, Australian policy makers need to be thinking hard over the next twelve months. A US election year looms in which an unstable president is seeking re-election under threat of impeachment with an Administration that is becoming more reckless and inept in strategic policy matters. These should in themselves spark a broad and deep review of strategic and alliance policy.

To look beyond a major conflict would be an exercise in idle fantasising. There are too many possibilities. The war could be over quickly as the US surgically takes out Iranian capabilities. It could grind on for years as a series of wars of attrition across the region. Oil and gas infrastructure in the region could be devastated changing the balance of energy power in the world. Or, if no direct military confrontation occurs, the region would lapse into an ongoing state of intolerably high tension. The assassination seems to be a game changer.

Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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12 Responses to MIKE SCRAFTON. Iran, the US, and Australia

  1. Rudie Hartono says:

    I am no fan of the present leader of the US and do not like the crazy situation in the Middle East. There is one point not mentioned, the Quds Force is considered a terrorist organization by several countries, including the US. Isn’t it the policy of the US to hunt down terrorists wherever they are ? Well suddenly the killing of the leader of a ‘terrorist organisation’ is considered a political assassination. He was a military man not a politician.
    So terrorist or not ?

  2. michael lacey says:

    This is not just about Trump !

    The mainstream media are carefully sidestepping the method behind America’s seeming madness in assassinating Islamic Revolutionary Guard general Qassim Suleimani to start the New Year. The logic behind the assassination this was a long-standing application of U.S. global policy, not just a personality quirk of Donald Trump’s impulsive action. His assassination of Iranian military leader Suleimani was indeed a unilateral act of war in violation of international law, but it was a logical step in a long-standing U.S. strategy. It was explicitly authorized by the Senate in the funding bill for the Pentagon that it passed last year.

    The assassination was intended to escalate America’s presence in Iraq to keep control the region’s oil reserves, and to back Saudi Arabia’s Wahabi troops (Isis, Al Quaeda in Iraq, Al Nusra and other divisions of what are actually America’s foreign legion) to support U.S. control o Near Eastern oil as a buttress the U.S. dollar. That remains the key to understanding this policy, and why it is in the process of escalating, not dying down.

    The media and public discussion have diverted attention from this strategy by floundering speculation that President Trump did it, except to counter the (non-)threat of impeachment with a wag-the-dog attack, or to back Israeli lebensraum drives, or simply to surrender the White House to neocon hate-Iran syndrome. The actual context for the neocon’s action was the balance of payments, and the role of oil and energy as a long-term lever of American diplomacy.

  3. Anthony Pun says:

    The assassination of General Soleimani has made him a national hero and martyr, which is used by Iran to unite all rival factions. It also prompted the Iraqi parliament to ask all foreign troops to leave. The Iranian outcry for revenge is not a joke because the assassination has fueled their enthusiasm for revenge. Could the attack in Kenya killing 3 American soldiers part of the revenge? Retaliation & revenge are vicious circles and when will it end?
    From a geopolitical viewpoint, the aftermath of the assassination will (1) push Iran/Iraq into the arms of the Russian and Chinese (2) Consolidate the Shite’s bringing Iran and Iraq closer together (3) the potential of a nuclear war gives NATO allies the jitters; (4) Put the Sunnis into jitters with the potential of rocket attack on their oil production facilities; (5) Raise oil prices & (6) US losing influence in the Middle East and perhaps a total withdrawal of US troops.
    CGTN: China has asked for restraint on both sides and suggested the peace can be be salvaged between US and Iran. Could Iran outmaneuver the US using the old Chinese Tai Chi martial art style?
    President Trump may be using this assassination to improve his chances of being re-elected and if so, it really showed that US foreign policy is strictly for the domestic agenda (including impeachment) and never mind the external consequences.
    Of course the Democrats will hone in on Trump’s failure to denuclearize DPRK and unilateral pull out of the Iran nuclear deal.
    This assassination has made a great geopolitical shift in the continuing conflict in the Middle East.
    Our Australian foreign policy appeared tied to the apron string of the US and now has created another dilemma, the first between a choice between trade or containment of China and the second, a choice between having peace with Iran or strongly identified as the strongest US ally in the Middle East front.
    Question: Do we still want to get involved with the Shite’s vs Sunni game in the Middle East when the US steadfast leadership appeared lost, the potential for WW3 and the potential harm to our troops stationed there.

  4. James O'Neill says:

    This article was disappointing on a number of levels, perhaps reflecting the author’s attachment to a range of offical bodies. US interference in Iran did not start with Trump. In 1953 the CIA and MI6 overthrew the Mossadegh government and installed the Shah. Relations again deteriorated in 1979 with the Islamic Revolution and they have not improved since. Trump is merely an extreme example of bad US policy. His latest violation of international law was refusing entry into the US this week of the Iranian Foreign Minister who was going to address the UN Security Council. That was a fundamental violation of the 1946 Treaty governing the right of entry into the US of accredited representatives of a foreign government to speak to the UN.
    The US is a rogue state and the sooner Australia reorganises its defence and treaty arrangements the better for Australia’s safety.
    The author also seems oblivious to the role of China and Russia. The three nations carried out their first joint naval exercise last week. Last year Trump was ready to attack Iran after the latter shot down a spy plane that had entered its territory. He was warned off by both Putin and Xi. Iran has important links to the SCO, the BRI and the NSTA, all of which are of huge regional importance but a blank slate for most Australians, including it would seem the author.
    Australia has also announced that it intends, in effect, to ignore the demand of the Iraqi government for all foreign troops to leave the country. Long past time to store pretending that Australia is a believer, let alone practitioner, of the rules based international order.

    • Mike Scrafton says:

      Perhaps you’re correct and ‘attachment to a range of official bodies’ has skewed my perceptions.
      On the other hand it has taught me that the personality, prejudices and pathologies of ultimate decision-makers overwhelmingly play a a greater role in the shaping actions than historical events from four decades ago.
      Trump is peculiar, and while his narrative is shaped by phrases that have gained traction over time, he has removed all but sycophants from his advisers and bears full responsibility for his acts.
      I find the suggestion that the US backed off earlier following warnings from Xi and Putin highly unlikely and have seen no evidence. It is an interesting conjecture though!

  5. Cameron Leckie says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that our Government should denounce, openly and loudly, this clearly illegal act. My point is that its more than just Trump that is the problem, it’s the entire decision making apparatus of the United States.

  6. Kien Choong says:

    As I understand it, international law would have required the US to at least declare war before attacking the military personnel of another country.

    Australia, Canada, UK, France, Japan and Germany now have an opportunity to show their commitment to a global rules based international order by clearly speaking out against the killing (if “assassination” is not the right word) of a person in another country.

    The best way to encourage other countries to comply with international norms is to do so ourselves when it is inconvenient to do so. The second best way is to speak out when one of our allies violate those international norms.

  7. Jim KABLE says:

    Whatever the case Cameron – the point is surely that there must be loud and clear commentary emanating from Morrison/Canberra that Australia will have absolutely nothing to do with any false flag bullshit from Trump or his puppet-string pullers in connection with Iran. Trump is now a self-declared murderer – and the moment he steps down from office – the best thing that could be done would be to send him to Teheran to face appropriate judgement – him and whoever advised him into this this ugly Suleimani murder. I have asked elsewhere if it might not be the case that Morrison was so generous with the services of Army Reservists called up to assist in the firefighting services just now because he’s holding back the Army Regulars having perhaps made some agreement already to support any Trump-led move against Iran. I trust neither Trump nor Morrison. Can we get any word on my disquiet from official sources? Could such word be trusted?

  8. Cameron Leckie says:

    Whilst I generally agree with Mike Scrafton’s article, and am no fan of President Trump, I am not convinced that it is Trump ruling the roost in the US. As highlighted by the article linked to below, it could well be that it is Pompeo and Esper who are actually calling the shots, and Trump is but a lame duck president.

    https://consortiumnews.com/2020/01/06/patrick-lawrence-the-iranian-generals-intent/

    • Lorraine Osborn says:

      Frightening to think there are even crazier people than Trump actually running the show. The evangelical power at play in the US and around the world, including Australia, was described by Jeff Sharlet in his book, The Family. For me, this assassination is worrying sign that there are dangerous people and forces at work putting us in peril. On the up side, maybe the looming climate catastrophe will take is all out before these mad, bad actors.

    • Ken Dyer says:

      You are probably right, it is terribly easy to pull the strings of a narcissistic psychopath under pressure of impeachment.

    • David Macilwain says:

      Absolutely agree Cameron, as Trump is just the pimple on the skin of a very sick country. But I also believe that this whole operation, including the Persian gulf trickery and the “pro-democracy protests” in Iraq have been building up to this point. The only question is just who was party to this scheme, other than Israel; all the indications must point to foreknowledge by the UK and Australia, because of their troop and special forces presence in Iraq and Syria, and close cooperation with Israel and Five Eyes partners.
      I would also question what else was discussed at the meeting of the National Security Cabinet last Thursday, and why it met urgently before yesterday’s meeting.
      Why does our media not ask these questions?

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