OPINION: Iran, Thursday 21 January 2016




The Iranian nuclear deal, which entered into force over the weekend, is significant - having the potential to restrict Iran’s ability to develop the technology required to build a nuclear weapon. While welcome, we have to remain realistic about the deal’s limitations, and we need to maintain a healthy degree of scepticism in our dealings with Iran.

There was understandable praise for the ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,’ signed in Vienna last July. The agreement needs to be recognised for what it is, however—a limited deal, focussed on only one aspect of Iran’s concerning behaviour— rather than what we might wish it to be. 

Australia must continue to steadfastly oppose Iran’s human rights abuses, its inciteful language towards the United States and Israel, its support of the brutal Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and its sponsorship of terrorism. 

When Iran tests ballistic missiles—which it has done a number of times since the nuclear deal was signed, seemingly in violation of Security Council rulings—we should speak up.

In the lead-up to the nuclear deal, some argued for the continuation of sanctions, which were having a serious impact on the Iranian economy.

While sanctions may have helped bring Iran to the negotiating table, it’s not clear that holding out for a better deal, while keeping sanctions in place, would have continued to restrain Iran’s nuclear program.

Others raised the option of a targeted international military strike. Without international support this option would have been questionable both legally and in the extent to which airstrikes would have degraded Iran’s nuclear program. Most importantly it would have had unpredictable and serious flow on consequences which would likely have pushed Iran to more aggressively pursue nuclear weapons technology. 

The third option, diplomacy, required serious compromises from all sides. But diplomacy has yielded results.

Since the signing of the agreement, Iran has removed thousands of centrifuges from uranium enrichment facilities, and shipped thousands of kilograms of low-enriched uranium out of the country. And now, as international sanctions on Iran are being lifted, the International Atomic Energy Agency reports that Iran has poured cement into the core of its reactor at Arak, which reportedly had the potential to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

To achieve the agreement, negotiators ‘siloed’ the nuclear issue from Iran’s other actions. 

But Iran’s actions since the signing of the nuclear deal—particularly its increased military support to the Assad regime in Syria—suggest that any changes to Iranian foreign policy will be minimal. Now that sanctions relief has begun, Iran will gain access to billions in foreign exchange assets held overseas, potentially allowing it to increase its already extensive financial and military assistance to the Syrian Government. 

Since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iran has taken advantage of the instability in the Middle East to spread its influence. It can also be expected that Iran will seek to use the end of its international isolation to further its struggle with the Sunni-led Gulf states for regional prominence.

For all these reasons we should have our eyes wide open when we deal with Iran.

And it makes the Coalition Government’s enthusiasm in its shifting approach to Iran a little difficult to understand. 

In Opposition, Julie Bishop criticised low-level efforts to engage Iran diplomatically.  In 2012, Ms Bishop said she had “concerns about [Iran’s] nuclear program”, that its leaders continued “to make bellicose statements with regard to Israel”, and that “the regime ha[d] been an active sponsor of terrorist organisations around the world.”

But once in Government, Ms Bishop visited Iran, prior to the final nuclear deal being signed, and with all of Australia’s sanctions still in place. Ms Bishop needs to outline to the Parliament and the Australian people what engagement Australia will have with Iran, and for what outcome.

With appropriate caution, we should work with Iran. Despite what we think about Iran’s actions in Syria and elsewhere, they are a significant political and military force in the region. 

Iran needs to be included in any conversations on ending the terrible war in Syria and they certainly have potential to be a force for good. 

But we should not assume that because of the nuclear deal Iran will suddenly become a responsible actor. 

While verifiable implementation of the nuclear deal would be a move in the right direction, it should not divert our attention from other issues presented by Iran. We must continue to stand up for our values.

This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.