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With the prospect of UN sanctions against Iran being withdrawn, Ms Bishop will be seeking opportunities for Australian companies to invest in Iran (especially in its decrepit fossil fuel infrastructure), buy from Iran and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

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