Is Bishop a pawn?

chessAustralian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will be visiting Iran on 18 April. The visit comes in the wake of the nuclear framework deal initialed on 2 April. Australia did not have a role in the ‘P5+1’ team of negotiators, but will look to benefit from any positive outcomes of the ongoing negotiations, if and when a final agreement is signed at the end of June.

Like every other country, Australia seeks to advance its own interests. However, it ought to be mindful of the Middle East strategic equation, and not sacrifice long-term interests for short-term gains.

On Ms Bishop’s list of talking points will be Iranian asylum seekers, Islamic State, sanctions relief, business interests, and a mandatory, light wrist-slapping about human rights and Iran’s long-running policy of undermining regional countries through proxies.

There are a lot of Iranian asylum seekers in Australia or on Nauru and Manus Island. Most of them have been or likely will be judged as not being owed protection (i.e. as not being genuine refugees). When an individual has had their asylum seeker claim rejected, Australia can forcibly return them to their home country—but only if that home country is willing to accept them. Until now, Iran has refused to accept Iranians forcibly repatriated from Australia. And since most failed Iranian asylum seekers refuse to return voluntarily, this puts Australia in a bind. Ms Bishop’s priority in Iran will be to secure an agreement from Iran to receive failed Iranian asylum seekers from Australia.

With the prospect of UN sanctions against Iran being withdrawn, Ms Bishop will be seeking opportunities for Australian companies to invest in Iran (especially in its decrepit fossil fuel infrastructure), buy from Iran and sell (especially livestock) to Iran.

Both of these issues—though especially the first—put Australia in the position of supplicant. Iran will thus have considerable leverage over Bishop to push for what it wants. And what it wants is an end to its international isolation without having to pay the price of giving up its nuclear program or stopping its drive to achieve regional hegemony. In the context of the Australian visit, it will want Australia to praise Iran’s good intentions in the nuclear negotiations and in regional politics. It will want Australia to lean on its Western friends to accept Iranian assurances about its nuclear ambitions. And, of course, it will want Australia to drop or considerably lessen its own sanctions against Iran (which are separate and additional to the UN sanctions).

Will Bishop accede to some or all of these demands? The answer lies in the determination of whether Australia wants to return all those failed asylum seekers more than it wants to hold Iran to account for its actions (which don’t directly affect Australia).

But the strategic equation is highly important. As former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has now repeatedly warned, it appears that the US has shifted its strategic objective of preventing Iran from having a nuclear capability to constraining that capability. This is a fundamental shift, and is already having considerable impact on the Middle East and, particularly, those countries that have looked to America to guarantee their security (and who are increasingly feeling like they’re being hung out to dry).

Ms Bishop’s trip to Iran so soon after the framework deal means that Australia is playing a small but important role in the developing Middle East dynamic. How will history look upon this footnote?

Iran and the Arab press

I have written previously (most recently here) about how the Status Quo Bloc (which consists of most Sunni Arab countries) are fearful of Iranian intentions. Israel and its prime minister might be very vocal about Iran (perhaps too vocal, to its detriment), but they largely mimic the thoughts of the Status Quo Bloc.

The following reports – just from the month of March – by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) shows just how concerned the Arab countries are about Iran.

Iran, sanctions and the nuclear negotiations

Nuclear talks between Iran and the ‘P5+1’ are once again in the news, with the sides having initialled a framework agreement (with a final, more detailed agreement to be negotiated over the next three months). The complexity of these negotiations boils down to a Western desire to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability and an Iranian desire to have the crippling sanctions against it removed.

As I have written previously, the West appears to want an agreement more than the Iranians, so seems willing to offer larger concessions. This is unfortunate, because the Iranian march toward nuclear weapons capability is bad for the region.

But there is a bigger picture here, and it remains that keeping the sanctions regime in place is more important for Western interests than reaching a deal—whatever its terms—that removes those sanctions.

Iran wants to exert its influence over the region. It supports, arms and trains regional Shi’ite or heterodox Muslim militias and countries (such as the Shi’ite Hezbollah, the Zaidi Houthis and the Allawite Syrian government) in order to advance Iranian interests. What are these interests? Principally, to undermine the countries of the Status Quo Bloc (and the US, which supports them).

Due to its efforts, Iran now possesses significant control and/or influence over four regional capitals—Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana’a. But there are other countries with sizeable Shi’ite populations—not least Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—which Iran could also use to destabilise its neighbours.

Israel’s position on the nuclear talks with Iran is well known. But Israel isn’t the story here. It remains that other Western friends in the Middle East see Iran as their principal enemy. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the two leading Arab countries, and both see Iran—and, particularly, Iranian foreign policy—as a threat to their countries. Remember, the Middle East is divided into the Status Quo Bloc (led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and the Resistance Bloc (led by Iran). (There is also a nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc, which both the Status Quo Bloc and the Resistance Bloc fear, hence the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the Iranian cooperation with the US in fighting Islamic State.)

While the Status Quo Bloc has long relied on American support, it sees current American policy as distancing itself from its Middle Eastern friends. It sees American willingness to agree to a nuclear deal well-short of original American goals not as a sign of the US pragmatically achieving what is possible, but proof that America wants to get out of the Middle East. This perception has the effect of undermining regional stability. Their thinking goes that if the West won’t protect the Status Quo countries, then those countries will have to protect themselves. On a very high level, it means they will look to start their own nuclear programs, to balance Iran. But it also means they will look to counter Iranian actions on the ground—hence the recent Arab coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthis’ recent takeover of Sana’a was seen in Arab capitals as a victory for Tehran.

The sanctions regime against Iran over the past few years has crippled the Islamic Republic economically (as has the current low price of oil), meaning Iran is increasingly having to choose between paying for services inside its borders or servicing its proxies in foreign wars.

Regardless of the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran, removing or lessening the sanctions against it will significantly improve the Iranian economy. Not only will Iran be able to export oil and other commodities, but foreign companies will be able to invest in Iran, and its banking sector will once again have access to international markets.

This will strengthen Iran and the Resistance Bloc, and further worry Iran’s enemies, adding to regional tension.

Sanctions are a tool used by the international community to force a country to change its behaviour. The Iranian attempts at nuclear weapons capability—which I believe will continue regardless of whatever deal is reached at the and of June—is not the problem, but only a symptom. The West should maintain a clear-eyed, strategic view of the region in the context of Western interests, to determine what it wants. I fear that, in its rush to sign a deal with Iran so as to notch up a foreign policy achievement, it is in the process of scoring a dangerous, strategic own goal of emboldening Iran and scaring the Status Quo Bloc, thereby further reducing regional stability.