Will Australia build trust with Iran?

NAJ Taylor 

NAJ Taylor
Email: NAJ.Taylor@latrobe.edu.au

First published on The Guardian on 15 July 2013.






The way forward is clear: Australia must adopt an independent foreign policy towards Iran on the nuclear question, as well as commit to dialogue.

Iranians now comprise the largest cohort of those seeking asylum in Australia each year. The tendency to dehumanise and securitise them is not only deeply disturbing, it is also beset, in part, by a paradox of our parliament’s own making: Australia has imposed sanctions on Iran since 2008.

These are autonomous measures, implemented at the total discretion of the Australian government, in addition to the raft of sanctions that have been set by the UN Security Council since July 2006 over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme – penalties that successive Liberal and Labor governments have wholeheartedly supported and implemented.

Indeed on 10 January 2013, Australia’s minister for foreign affairs announced a further round of autonomous sanctions. In part, he said:

‘These sanctions further increase pressure on Iran to comply with its nuclear non-proliferation obligations and with UN Security Council resolutions and to engage in serious negotiations on its nuclear program.’

Notably, this policy pronouncement came a mere three days after Australia had assumed the chair of the Iran Committee on the UN Security Council, which the minister saw as recognition that ‘we’re seen as having the commitment and resources to deliver effective oversight of international sanctions regimes which are critical to Middle East and global security’.

The signal Canberra is sending Tehran is loud and clear: despite the rhetoric [PDF 8.7MB] of being a ‘creative middle power’ – in this instance, following the lead of the US – sanctions are the only game in town.

Why is Iran being sanctioned?

The reasons behind both types of sanctions are complex. They stem from contending views of the nature of Iran’s nuclear-related activities – is it for strictly peaceful purposes, or not? In many ways, however, the origins of the Iran nuclear dispute are less strategic than they are historical, political and cultural.

The failure of the international community to respond to the ongoing deployment of chemical weapons use by Hussein during 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war remains a gaping wound that still needs tending – it was, after all, one of few instances such weapons have been used in human history. All told, 5,000 Iranian and Iraqi Kurds were killed as part of a decade-long weapons program in which a dozen states were later to be implicated.

To be sure, criticisms of Iran’s nuclear activities and cooperation are difficult to be dismissed out of hand; but at the same time, nor can assurances from Iranian political and religious leaders. Before the explosive missives characteristic of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president Mohammad Khatami sought a ‘dialogue among civilisations’ with George W Bush. Around the same time, the Bush administration characterised Iran as part of an ‘axis of evil’.

Incoming president Hassan Rouhani will likely be more tempered and moderate in his approach than was Ahmadinejad. Rouhani’s long-time ally Seyed Hossein Mousavian, writing now as an academic at Princeton, believes the new president has five options: enter into new talks, surrender, tolerate the west, get bombs, or withdraw altogether from the nuclear regime in protest. Although what influence Rouhani will have is of course as yet unknown.

Crucially, all political leaders must act in concert with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei. Whilst Khamenei’s response to the dual-track of talks and sanctions has been mixed, he’s remained resolute in Iran’s inalienable right to nuclear power, and in 2005 issued a fatwa on the development, use or possession of nuclear weapons in an effort to reinvigorate earlier statements by his predecessor Imam Khomeini at the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

Yet it remains unclear what (if any) significance has been attached to such religious condemnations of nuclear weapons – particularly by the secular states of the west, and the Vienna-based international nuclear watchdog, the IAEA. To what extent can Tehran be trusted?

Eroding and building trust

Diplomacy has failed thus far to build the requisite trust between negotiating parties. The heavy reliance on sanctions has already eroded it to such an extent that there is already a discernible spike in calls for the pre-emptive and preventative use of force. Such a strategy belies a growing academic literature on the imprecision and inexactness of sanctions in changing state behaviour. For instance, recent scholarship into all of the sanctions levied during the 20th century has found that they caused more deaths than have biological, nuclear and chemical weapons combined throughout their entire history. This is certainly also true of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Unquestionably, all forms of sanctions have the capacity to cause widespread harm and suffering to the peoples of Iran, as well as to the 35,000-strong diaspora community already resident in Australia. Whilst likely unintended, the imposition of such harm is less than satisfactory – both morally and operationally.

Australian sanctions against Iran must therefore be considered as an extreme measure to be taken only if efforts in support of regional as well as Iranian denuclearisation come to fail, or if the imminence of Iranian nuclear weapons acquisition demands an immediate response by the Australian government over and above those taken by the nuclear watchdog and the UN Security Council.

Australia’s recent statements respond to neither of these circumstances. Australia’s autonomous sanctions against Iran are in fact a swift ‘alignment’ of Australian policy with that of the US, Britain and EU, as reasoned by senator Carr on 10 January.

What would an independent Australian policy look like?

The more appropriate way forward for any incoming Australian prime minister is clear: Australia must adopt an independent foreign policy towards Iran on the nuclear issue. Australia could certainly more ‘creatively’ use its position on the UN Security Council, particularly as chair of the Iran Committee, to facilitate and foster a broader commitment to dialogical exchange with Iran than has otherwise been the case.

Simultaneously, as I have proposed elsewhere with Joseph Camilleri, Australia should do more to promote regional efforts at biological, nuclear and chemical weapons disarmament, which are at their most critical and advanced stage after more than 40 years of pre-negotiations. Our modest set of proposals included a prime ministerial statement in support of such an initiative, as well as the formal presentation of a progress report ‘to parliament outlining steps already taken and further steps contemplated as preparations get underway for the 2015 NPT Review Conference’.

In all it does, Australia should commit to dialogue with Iran as a process of mutual discovery, based on an exploration of all parties’ commonalities and differences. Such a dialogue will require a level of trust and commitment from all parties, particularly if Australia is to successfully foster the climate of mutual respect necessary for the dispute to be resolved peacefully.

Whatever Australia’s leaders decide, both political parties must stop privileging sanctions at the same time as actively politicising Iranian asylum seekers. It beggars belief who they think that’s helping.

NAJ Taylor is a research associate at La Trobe University’s Centre for Dialogue and and Associate Editor of the journal Global Change, Peace & Security.