TRANSCRIPT: ABC AM, Tuesday 15 March 2016





SUBJECT/S: Iran, Syria


MICHAEL BRISSENDEN, PRESENTER: Tanya Plibersek, welcome to the program again.


BRISSENDEN: Julie Bishop will raise human rights with the Iranian Foreign Minister, and issues of national interest of course. Should she be asking the Foreign Minister to take back all of their asylum seekers?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think the most important discussion for our Foreign Minister to have is with the Australian people: to let the Australian people know what exactly has changed in our approach to Iran in recent years. Of course, Labor has always said that we should engage with Iran – it’s a country of significant size and of course a very important player in its region- has been a significant force in the Syrian conflict but also in a number of other conflicts, including in Yemen. So we believe engagement is very important but we’d like to know from the Foreign Minister why it is that Australia has changed – why she’s changed her position so quickly, and what her objectives are. Are they trading objectives, or do they include this objective of the involuntary return of people who have lodged asylum claims in Australia and have been unsuccessful? And, if they are the objectives, what are we prepared to give up or forego in pursuing those objectives? I would not like to think that Australia would be turning a blind eye to what we know are continued human rights abuses, continued support for the Assad regime, continued export of weapons, continued testing of ballistic missiles -

BRISSENDEN: Can we get to the broader engagement with Iran in a second, and just deal with the asylum seeker question first? Should Iran take back forcibly repatriated asylum seekers? Should we be asking them to do that?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think Australia would have to have some very strong assurances that people would be safe in returning to Iran. We know that journalists continue to be prevented from doing their work, we know that people are executed for being gay; It is a country that has a pretty poor human rights record, so you would need some very strong assurances that people are going to be safe on return.

BRISSENDEN: There does seem to be a concern, at least from your side, and from many quarters, that Australia is getting too close to Iran in the last little while. But clearly this does reflect, doesn’t it, a general pivot in Western diplomacy toward greater engagement with Iran?

PLIBERSEK: Greater engagement is a good thing. We supported the nuclear deal, we think it’s a much better option than any of the other options which were continued sanctions, which were obviously difficult to maintain into the future, or what some people were proposing which was a military response – I mean that would have been crazy. So we think that the nuclear deal was the right approach. But that doesn’t mean that countries should now turn a blind eye to behaviour like the continuing export of weapons to Yemen. Or the continued testing of ballistic missiles, or indeed the domestic human rights abuse, the continued support for the Assad regime. All of these things still need to be questioned and we can’t set them aside because we’ve got a new and more convenient priority before us.

BRISSENDEN: So do you think that’s what we’re doing? Do you think we are getting too close to Iran?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think it’s up to the Foreign Minister to explain why in 2012 she said that Iran was so bad that we shouldn’t even send public servants to a multilateral meeting in Iran, and today she has been very quick to visit Iran herself, and very quick to pursue some objectives – she’s not prepared to make clear exactly what those are.

BRISSENDEN: Was it wrong to suspend the sanctions against Iran?

PLIBERSEK: No, I think we are quite right to join the international community in suspending sanctions. I think we need to be very careful about making sure that when we suspend any of our particular sanctions that we don’t inadvertently support the building of weapons or– that it has no unintended consequences. And that’s why we’ve called for a proper parliamentary scrutiny of the lifting of sanctions.

BRISSENDEN: Okay. The situation in Syria surely has changed everything in this regard, in the way the West approaches Iran and in our relationship with almost everybody in that region, hasn’t it?

PLIBERSEK: Well the whole geopolitics of the region are changing, that’s certainly true, and they will change even more as Iran increases its wealth after the sanctions are lifted. We’ve always said that Iran will have to be part of the solution in Syria, and of course the Russian changes today – with Vladimir Putin saying that he’ll recall Russian troops – obviously changes the situation again. What concerns me is that the main objective of both Iran and Russia has been to prop up the Assad regime. That’s meant that the conflict has lengthened in time – we’re now at the 5 year anniversary – hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, we know that there are more than 2 million child refugees from this conflict now.

BRISSENDEN: So how should we read Russia’s announcement that it will withdraw its troops? Does that suggest then that Russia believes the Assad regime can survive quite well without it?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think we have to be careful trying to read motivation, but the Russians have said that they’ve achieved their objective there. Well, it seems to me that Daesh, or IS, whatever you want to call it, has not yet been defeated so I’m not sure what the objective was unless it was to prop up the Assad regime and put it into a stronger position for negotiations.

BRISSENDEN: Well it certainly complicated the environment there, didn’t it?

PLIBERSEK: It has massively complicated the environment. And the other thing we have to look at of course is withdrawing troops is one thing, but ending the air bombing campaign that has predominantly targeted groups in the middle that are attacking the Assad regime, has been very counterproductive and, I mean if troops are withdrawn but the bombing continues of those groups in the middle we still have a situation where the Russians are trying to clear out the middle ground and make the West choose between the continuation of an Assad regime, or Daesh taking over.

BRISSENDEN: Just quickly, will you be meeting the Iranian Foreign Minister?

PLIBERSEK: Yes I will.

BRISSENDEN: And what will you be saying to him?

PLIBERSEK: Well of course, I’ll welcome his visit and I’ll welcome the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions. But what I will say is that countries like Australia very much value international laws and norms and those norms include allowing freedom of reporting, freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom of political association, freedom of religion in a country, freedom of sexuality. And that we are very concerned about the continued support of the Assad regime, of the export of weapons to Yemen, the rhetoric against the United States, Israel: all of the aggressive moves that we continue to see from Iran.

BRISSENDEN: Okay. Tanya Plibersek, thanks for joining us.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you.