Australia and Iran: Courting Disaster?

Yet another piece on the Iranian controversy — this time on Australia’s recent decision to send a warship to the Persian Gulf to ensure freedom of navigation in the region. I originally wrote the essay for publication, and although it was rejected, I think it holds up fairly well.  

The political class can be an incurious group. Despite privileged access to specialist knowledge – willingly doled out by a gaggle of advisers – politicians remain susceptible to conventional thinking and pre-fabricated narratives. This is hardly conducive to the suppleness of thought required to navigate a complex international ecosystem.

The Morrison Government’s recent pledge to send military assets to the Persian Gulf – part of a US-led exercise aimed at safeguarding maritime traffic amidst rising tensions with Iran – illustrates the point well. Considered as a response to the need for ensuring freedom of navigation, the move is comprehensible on narrow grounds. But therein lies the problem. The government’s restricted view of the roiling crisis between the United States and Iran reveals a failure to properly ask – much less answer – two vital questions: How did this crisis emerge? And what are the chances that Australia might become embroiled in an escalation of tensions?

The government’s rationale for providing assets to the region is two-fold: to secure the unmolested flow of oil and gas exports; and to uphold the rules-based international order. In resting their decision on the integrity of that order, Australian officials have acquiesced to the conventional claim that Iran is largely responsible for subverting it. Although he did not identify Tehran specifically when announcing Australia’s involvement, Scott Morrison could hardly have been referring to anyone else when he invoked the spectre of ‘destabilising behaviour’.

It’s difficult to overstate the wrongheadedness of this interpretation. Despite the prevalence of claims concerning Iran’s incorrigible aggression, the reality is that the United States has been the primary antagonist in the escalating crisis. Tehran’s recent actions in the Gulf – sabotaging and hijacking commercial vessels, or downing an American military drone – cannot be understood apart from events in the 16 months since the Trump Administration unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.

Despite Iran’s adherence to the terms of the JCPOA, the US abandoned the agreement in favour of its preferred strategy of ‘maximum pressure’. The Trump Administration subsequently embarked on a relentless campaign designed to force Tehran’s capitulation. Economic sanctions provide a window into the destructive effects of American strategizing. Multiple and far-reaching penalties have been imposed upon Iran, strangling large swathes of its economy and destroying the livelihoods of millions. One particularly tragic consequence of the current sanctions regime is the near-impossibility some Iranians have had trying to obtain life-saving medications. Present American policy is thus killing Iranian citizens, whose only ‘crime’ is to live under a regime Washington happens to despise.

American actions over the past year or so have not only failed to draw Iran back to the negotiating table (the stated objective of its ‘maximum pressure’ strategy); they also have provoked the Islamic Republic’s recent ‘destabilising’ activity. Whether this represents deliberate calculation or merely a lack of foresight is difficult to divine. But commentators observe that in its zeal, the U.S. has fostered precisely the kind of behaviour for which it now condemns Iran.

Seemingly blind to this context, the Morrison Government remains committed to the fiction that securing freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and the Trump Administration’s escalating feud with Iran are entirely unrelated. But it also appears uninterested in the risks associated with sending military assets into a highly restive environment. The rules of engagement are sketchy, and although the defence minister, Linda Reynolds, claims that Australia’s objective is ‘de-escalation’, there’s every chance a militarised response will simply generate yet another instance of the dreaded security dilemma.

Although conflict between the U.S. and Iran is relatively unlikely at this stage, the potential for miscalculation to trigger open hostilities remains – particularly when one of the antagonists is helmed by a man notorious for his thin skin and penchant for crude displays of machismo. Tehran could respond to perceived provocations with any number of tactics: mining the Strait of Hormuz, for example, or harassing American military assets in the region. Several analysts have explored the consequences of war, which would likely be far bloodier and far costlier than many advocates for confrontation with Iran are willing to admit. But Australian government officials have apparently failed to examine these prognostications with anything more than a cursory glance. Meanwhile, the irony of unwittingly intensifying tensions in the Gulf through a purported strategy of de-escalation seems lost on them.

As an independent middle power, Australia has a bevy of well-defined interests. These, of course, do include the flow of oil exports out of the Middle East. But the country’s independence should not be sacrificed for the sake of slavish devotion to the American alliance. This is particularly so when such devotion encourages critical myopia, or screens out uncomfortable (though eminently important) strategic truths. One can only hope that the Morrison Government won’t require the calamity of open conflict to learn these lessons.

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