black and white cityscape of Tehran, Iran.

Australia could help reduce tensions in the Persian Gulf

War and regime change would be devastating for Iran and hurt the whole Middle East. Australia has a unique place in this crisis. We could step up and be a force for peace.

This article was originally published on Australian Outlook on 18 June 2019.
It is republished with permission.

When the Trump Administration withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018 and imposed stringent sanctions on Iran, it set in motion a series of events that have clearly escalated tensions between Iran and the United States.

The recent finger pointing and sabre rattling in the wake of tanker explosions in the Sea of Oman should not come as a surprise. President Trump’s decision to send US warships to the Persian Gulf was based on unverified claims that Iran was posing security threats to its neighbours and there was a need for an immediate response. The deployment of US warships was justified in terms of “heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations”.

American flag blowing in the breeze.

No evidence was presented to substantiate this security analysis, and US allies in Europe remained unconvinced that there was indeed a crisis.

The Trump claims of an impending Iranian offensive gave the matter a sense of urgency. It made it sound as though Washington was faced with a crisis and had to act fast. But beyond Trump’s inner circle, there was no consensus and certainly no evidence of a crisis. At the time, many warned that the build-up of US forces so close to Iran could lead to accidental contacts and complicate an already-difficult relationship.

A month later, we are witnessing accusations about Iranian attacks on oil tankers, something that the United States has not verified with independent observers, despite requests by the UN chief Antonio Guterres.     

President Donald Trump appears to thrive on self-made crises so that he can present himself as the “deal-maker” and saviour of American interests, be it the wall with Mexico, trade with China or the nuclear deal with Iran. In this, he is bolstered by US hawks such as national security advisor John Bolton and the Secretary of the State Mike Pompeo, as well as Iran’s long-time regional rival Saudi Arabia and arch-enemy Israel.

President Donald Trump giving the thumbs up with Vice President Mike Pence on stage

This anti-Iran coalition appears to be running Washington’s agenda on Iran. And this agenda is pursuing nothing short of regime change, even if President Trump is undecided on the matter.

Iran’s response to this escalation of military posturing and the new economic sanctions has been defiant. Iran clearly cannot afford to look weak in the face of what it sees as bullying and “economic terrorism”.

This message was delivered by the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at a regional meeting in Bishkek when he asked Russia, China and other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to stand up to American pressure and work towards saving the 2015 nuclear deal. This message was well received in Moscow and Beijing, but is unlikely to sway Washington, as the Trump Administration is already in a tense relationship with the two powers.

Washington’s Iran policy has effectively closed all doors to negotiations and left regime change as the only option. But the rest of the world does not need to go along with this. Neighbouring states such as Oman and Qatar have tried to mediate and de-escalate tensions. They see the potential clash between Iran and the United States as a devastating scenario. Such an eventuality would hurt the whole region.

As history tells us, any attempt at regime change will have long-term repercussions for security and stability in Iran and the whole region. Regime change efforts face a real risk of getting out of hand and drawing the United States in a protracted conflict. This is not a hard lesson to learn and many on Capitol Hill have warned the Trump Administration about the dangers of rash decisions. 

Capitol Hill building, Washington, set against the blue sky

As a long-term ally of the United States, Australia has a unique place in this crisis. Unlike many European powers, Australia’s trade relations with Iran is minimal and efforts to mediate cannot be dismissed as lobbying for its national interests.

Australia’s record as a reliable partner for the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and, more recently, in the fight against ISIS give Canberra the credibility of a friend. This is an opportunity to remind the Trump Administration of the serious risks in its Iran policy. Such mediation, coupled with steps by Oman and Qatar, could provide the face-saving opportunity that the American and Iranian leaders need to step back from the brink. Such efforts at mediation need not jeopardise Australia’s alliance with the United States, which is of primary concern for Canberra.

Quite the contrary, it is likely to elevate Australia’s standing on the international stage as a responsible player and a force for peace. This is the kind of international image and standing that Australia should be aspiring to. Such a standing would strengthen Canberra’s capacity to act in other theatres, including those much closer to home.

Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh
Alfred Deakin Institute

Professor Akbarzadeh’s book “Middle East Politics and International Relations” is now available.

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