“Already, there is too much loose talk of war,” said then-US President Barack Obama in 2012. Seven years later, that statement continues to ring true, particularly when reading analysis of US-Iran policy. In these pages, scholars are continuing to epitomise such “loose talk”, putting forth a legal argument against Australia joining America in a conflict against Iran.
Fortunately for now and the foreseeable future, there is no war for Prime Minister Scott Morrison to join. America continues to call for diplomacy, even as the regime bombs vessels near the Strait of Hormuz, and even as it shoots down American drones in international skies.
There is, however, an American economic pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic. Washington’s goal is to get Tehran to abandon its dangerous course of terrorism, mayhem, and nuclear blackmail. But the goal of this economic campaign is not even regime change. America’s goal is a bigger, broader, and better diplomatic agreement.
This should be Australia’s goal, too.
Since the US withdrew from the JCPOA nuclear deal in May of last year, Washington has relied on its most powerful – and peaceful – tools of coercion to get Iran back to the negotiating table for a genuinely comprehensive agreement: sanctions. Iran initially sought to absorb and outlast this sanctions pressure, hoping that US President Donald Trump loses his re-election bid in 2020.
But with sanctions taking a bigger bite out of the Iranian economy than previously expected, the regime in Tehran has more recently shifted its strategy. It is now willing to strike at US interests and allies in a bid for sanctions relief. Neither America nor its allies should stand for this. The West must instead work together to increase the economic and political pressure – all with the aim of bringing Iran back to the table for a deal that finally addresses the broad range of its malign behaviours.
Popularly floated approaches that ignore Iranian escalation will not get us there. Indeed, such recommendations that distance Australia from Washington will actually hinder Australia’s national interests. Canberra is committed to both nonproliferation norms and the integrity of the international financial system. It should not be ashamed to stand for these principles.
Last week, Iran officially violated the JCPOA nuclear deal, showing that it is willing to breach restrictions related to domestic enrichment. Tehran has increased its enrichment of uranium to just under 5 per cent purity. It did so without a clear need for this fissile material, unless it seeks to build a nuclear weapon by growing this stockpile and further enriching it. And let us not forget that the regime had a secret nuclear weapons program and has failed to live up to past safeguards obligations.
While America’s European partners debate the proper response to this move, Australia can capitalise on its security relationship with the US and move towards unilateral sanctions, coordinating targets with the US Treasury Department. Rather than simply blame Iranian violations on Washington, Canberra can help deter Tehran from additional escalation – signalling that there will be consequences for more breaches.
Moreover, should Australian officials heed advice offered previously in these pages – to throw its weight behind the European financial mechanism dubbed “INSTEX” to try to buy-Iran off and keep Tehran in the deal – they would be endorsing a potentially illicit payments system that undermines US sanctions. This move would have adverse consequences for the US-Australia relationship. At present, American “frenemies” like Turkey, and adversaries such as Russia and China, are reportedly looking to join INSTEX. Australia should not join this club.
Worse, the move would be tacitly blessing the newly-created Iranian entity dubbed “STFI”, which is designed to work with INSTEX and has shareholders (direct and indirect) on the US sanctions list. Shunning INSTEX and barring transactions with STFI would signal that Australia will not sit on the sidelines of the Iran debate. Vocal support for the US position on Iran by Prime Minister Morrison when he visits Washington in September can also go a long way.
Those who call for turning a blind eye out of concern over a potential conflict may have the right intentions. But insufficient deterrence, coupled with unclear red lines, can often be construed by malign actors as a green light for continued bad behaviour, and actually pave the way for an unwanted war. The best way to avert conflict is for America and its partners to articulate clear and unmistakable policies in the face of Iranian threats, and not to back down when confronted with the first challenge.
Divining the intentions of any administration in Washington is no easy task. It is certainly not easy with this one. But critics’ tendencies to project the worst – a desire for war – as US policy, rather than taking at face value key documents and official statements out of Washington, robs Australia of an opportunity to deepen its relationship with the US while giving a free pass to the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism.
Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice-president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, where Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow focusing on Iran. FDD is a non-partisan national security and foreign policy institute in Washington.