The US and Australia will soon raise a glass to a ‘common vision for global peace, security and prosperity.’ On September 20, the Trump administration will host only its second official state dinner at the White House, this time honoring Prime Minister and Mrs Morrison. It’s no secret that the U.S. and Australia retain close ties, share similar security interests and political values, and have even paid the ultimate price for them in places like the Middle East. It is in the Middle East however, that one of the greatest challenges to realising that shared vision is found: Iran.
In Tehran, a revolutionary government rules over a clearly post-revolutionary society in pursuit of regime interests rather than the Iranian national interest. The result? Four decades of anti-Western enmity and policies underwritten by squandering Iranian wealth.
Both the U.S. and Australia assess that Iran’s actions, ranging from nuclear deception to regional destabilisation – including but not limited to threats against commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz – are a menace to international peace and security. But deeper cooperation and coordination on Iran policy will be needed to change Iran’s behaviour.
On the nuclear front, Australia was largely supportive (through sanctions relief) of the 2015 nuclear deal known as the JCPOA and did not welcome the U.S. decision to pull out of the agreement in May 2018. However, the Iran policy review undertaken by the Morrison government last year – even though it still ended up endorsing the accord – recognised that the deal does not permanently resolve the Iranian nuclear question and leaves room for Australia to modify its Iran policy to cover issues like terrorism, ballistic missiles, and human rights.
Post policy-review, Australia’s continued support of the deal was tied to Iran’s adherence to its terms. However, in 2019 alone, Iran thrice intentionally violated the accord. The latest violations involve installing more advanced centrifuges (the machines that spin uranium) under the auspices of research and development, a move hailed on September 6 by Iranian officials as ‘phase three’ of their plan. Iran also continues to flight-test ballistic missiles – some of which can carry a nuclear warhead – in contravention of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 that enshrines the JCPOA.
Worse, on September 8, Reuters reported that the IAEA (the international body tasked with monitoring Iran’s nuclear program) found traces of uranium at Turquzabad, home to the ‘atomic warehouse’ Israel shined a light on over a year ago. Uranium, if enriched to weapons-grade, can be used as fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Iran is yet to offer an official reason as to why this material was found at Turquzabad.
Iran’s failure to declare this radioactive material to the IAEA may breach something more important than the fatally flawed JCPOA. It may violate, according to experts, the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol – two cornerstone agreements that have helped define the international non-proliferation regime.
To date, there has been no Australian penalty in response, proof of the sort of passivity Iran is looking for from the international community. New unilateral sanctions by Canberra against Tehran, as well as coordination between Australia and the U.S. on future sanctions targets could change this, and begin to bridge the gap between Washington and Canberra on this issue. It can also be used to draw a sharp line between America’s trans-Atlantic partners, who remain doggedly attached to the JCPOA, and Australia.
In the interim, Iran should not rest easy. Australia has stepped-up before on the nuclear issue, even when the U.S. remained reserved. For example, in 2016 when the U.S. was still party to the JCPOA, Australian delegates to the IAEA Board of Governors politely critiqued the lack of quantitative information in IAEA reporting on Iran’s nuclear program. Robust, detailed, timely reporting on the full range of Iran’s nuclear activities helps inform independent assessments of the status and direction of Tehran’s atomic program.
An area of greater agreement between the U.S. and Australia pertains to a different domain of malign Iranian activity. Iran has ramped-up its harassment of legitimate maritime traffic and freedom of navigation starting in the late spring of 2019, targeting international tankers with mines, and even taking tankers hostage. All of this threatens the vital waterway known as the Strait of Hormuz, where over a fifth of seaborne traded oil passes on a daily basis.
Australia’s reported involvement in Operation Sentinel, the U.S.-led maritime security initiative, is not just a win for Washington’s maximum pressure campaign; it is a win for Australia. The move to support freedom of navigation efforts was met with bipartisan approval in Canberra. Despite being resource-rich, Australia remains reliant on oil imports to meet energy needs, and reportedly has less than a one-month supply of oil at home. Much of this oil comes from the Persian Gulf area, which means any disruptions in supply will have a significant impact on Australian industry, business, and even consumers.
By this measure, standing with the U.S. in defence of the principle of freedom of navigation is not only about national security. It is a sound economic decision to protect the international transit routes for a commodity critical to the Australian economy. Australia can help more countries see the dividends of cooperation with America in this regard.
By deepening their cooperation in these areas and beyond, Australia and America can show Iran, and by extension the world, that transgressions of the norms that uphold the rules-based order – whether of nuclear non-proliferation or freedom of navigation – will come at a cost. As Iran continues to test the Trump administration, the Australian-American partnership must keep pace if it wishes to articulate and bolster a shared vision for international peace and security.
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