PETER RODGERS. Dear Prime Minister – stay firm on Iran, give “strong leader” wise counsel

Aug 12, 2019

Advice for the PM as he prepares to visit America and is honoured by dinner with Donald. Let’s hope Morrison can distinguish clearly between US and Australian interests.  

You’ll be off to Washington soon, honoured with a State dinner by a president you’ve described as “a strong leader, who says what he’s going to do and then goes and does it”.

You’ll have plenty to talk about. The role of China in the region and the world; the impact of Brexit; North Korea; what Mr Putin is up to; (maybe even) climate change. But the broader Middle East will be high on the agenda, focused on Iran.

It’s a troublesome country that interferes in events far beyond its borders and, with Saudi Arabia, is culpable for the misery that is Yemen today. There are two main issues. One is Iranian interference with the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz – a matter of singular importance to Australia. The other is the question of Iran’s possible nuclear weapons ambitions.

You might have seen the US Energy Information Administration’s description of the Strait of Hormuz as the world’s “most important oil chokepoint”. One-third of the world’s sea-traded oil passes through it, with no choice but to travel either through Iranian or Omani territorial waters. About 80 per cent of that oil goes to Asian markets, including key trading partners for Australia. Add to this the fact that Australia’s refined petroleum mostly comes from Singapore but originates in the Gulf and passes through the Strait, and that national stockpiles of refined product are now alarmingly low, and our critical interest in the issue is obvious.

What you say to Mr Trump should be relatively straightforward. Australia will cooperate with international efforts to keep the oil flowing, possibly including the use of Australian navy vessels.

But there must be an important proviso to Australian involvement. Action in the Strait should not be allowed to morph into a wider military campaign against Iran linked to US, Israeli and Saudi Arabian claims about Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions. So, “Read my lips – no mission creep!”, should be your mantra.

That could make for some tough exchanges in Washington. Mr Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, and the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, appear keen for a fight with Iran. They and other hawks, no doubt, will point to Iran’s recent announcement that it will enrich uranium at 5 per cent and increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium above 300 kilograms. Both actions contravene the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed between Iran, Britain, France, China, Russia, Germany and the US.

But it was the US, under Mr Trump, that in May 2018 walked away from the JCPOA. An Iranian comeback was only a matter of time.

Fortunately, Mr Trump appears wary about a hot engagement with Iran and yet another regional conflict. You should urge restraint, noting the consequences for America and its allies of earlier US-led wars in the broader Middle East – including the spread of Iranian influence in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the rise of ISIS and the seemingly never-ending war in Afghanistan.

Don’t be shy about referring the President to your own comments on the JCPOA. Take him through the findings of the expert review you initiated in October 2018, as part of the government’s consideration of Australia’s interests in the Middle East. You later announced the review’s conclusion that, on balance, the JCPOA was delivering what was intended, with “substantial restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity in place and the International Atomic Energy Agency verifying on 13 occasions that Iran was keeping within the deal’s limits”.

You noted, importantly, that the JCPOA took Iran from the brink of having enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, “to a place where the international community has daily oversight of its nuclear activities”. The deal “served Australian interests in nuclear non-proliferation and in reinforcing the rules-based international system”.

You won’t be alone in urging Mr Trump to reconsider the US approach to the JCPOA. The four other permanent members of the UN Security Council want to save it. So do a group of high-level US military commanders and diplomats. They issued a statement last March arguing that the US should re-join a deal that provided “unprecedented” international monitoring, limited Iran’s nuclear program, provided assurances it would not be used to develop weapons, improved American intelligence about potential future development, and “significantly improved the security of the United States and our allies”.

Discussion about Iran will lead inevitably to consideration of its contest with Saudi Arabia for regional influence and the two nations’ proxy war in Yemen. That conflict has created the world’s worst humanitarian disaster – largely unnoticed in Australia, it seems. The raw statistics tell an appalling story: 15 million people, over 50 per cent of Yemen’s population, are starving or on the brink of starvation; the death toll to date is about 100,000; a cholera epidemic in 2017 affected over one million people.

What can Australia do there? On its own, very little. But it could try to encourage a more thoughtful US approach to the Gulf region, one less bookended by oil and arms sales. A less confrontational US-Iranian relationship could assist dogged UN efforts to provide desperately needed humanitarian relief in Yemen.

It would also worry Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and possibly help to restrain his reckless, sometimes grotesque behaviour, such as the murder and dismemberment of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

As you probably know, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands recently suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia over allegations of war crimes in Yemen and the Khashoggi murder. In June, the UK Court of Appeals declared British arms sales to Saudi Arabia illegal, prompting the British Government to suspend, at least temporarily, issuing new arms export licences. The UK ruling came on the very day the US Senate blocked an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, worth almost A$12 billion, because of concerns over human rights violations (subsequently vetoed by Mr Trump).

As those nations moved to curb arms sales to the Saudis and their Gulf allies, the Australian Government was implementing its strategy to make Australia the world’s 10th largest arms exporter, up from 20th place at present, with the Middle East a “priority market”. Mr Trump might well applaud such ambition. But it seems an odd way of promoting regional peace and stability.

On the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Mr Trump will no doubt express great confidence in his ability to pull off the “deal of the century”. An element in this was the recent meeting in Bahrain, organised by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Its purported aim was to improve Palestinian economic life.

Few people in the region and beyond seem to have taken it seriously. You might ask the President about the political element in his “deal”, which could be revealed later this year. Mr Kushner is reported to have said that it does not include a two-state solution.

That could be tricky for you. When you announced Australian recognition of West Jerusalem as the Israeli capital late last year, you set this firmly within the context of the long-awaited two-state deal.

Australia, you said, had an “absolute commitment to a two-state solution,” which included acknowledging “the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a future state with its capital in East Jerusalem”. Does Mr Trump consider that the two-state idea still has merit? If not, what does?

Those of us with a particular interest in the Middle East wish you a productive visit to the US, cautioning though that not everything the “strong leader” in the White House says or does is necessarily in Australia’s best interests. We urge you to offer Mr Trump wise counsel on the troubles of the region, hoping he is guided by it. How good would that be?

Peter Rodgers is a former Australian ambassador to Israel who has written two books on the Middle East, Herzl’s Nightmare – one land two peoples and Arabian Plights – the future Middle East.  First published by +61J Media on 9 August 2019.

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