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While you’re in Iran, Julie Bishop

Will the Australian foreign minister challenge Teheran on its ongoing commitment to destroy Israel?

Chess has its origins in India, but it’s to Persia that the world owes the term ‘checkmate’. At the Lausanne nuclear negotiations, Iran appears as though it has checkmated Barack Obama and the P5+1 negotiators.

In regards to the nuclear negotiations, it seems the US, in particular, wants an agreement more than Iran. As former US Secretaries of State Kissinger and Shultz have written, “negotiations that began 12 years ago as an international effort to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement that concedes this very capability.”

Enter Julie Bishop, Australia’s foreign minister. She arrived in Iran Friday evening to meet with her Iranian counterpart. She wants a particularly key ‘announceable’ from her visit, and the Iranians know this. What does she want? Over the past few years, thousands of asylum seekers have arrived in Australia. Their numbers aren’t anywhere near the numbers of asylum seekers entering Europe, but they were enough to make ‘Stop the boats’ a factor in Australia’s last election. Many have been found (or likely will be found) not to be genuine refugees. As such, Australia may forcibly repatriate them but – and here’s the catch – only if their home country agrees to receive them. Iran typically does not receive involuntarily repatriated failed asylum seekers. Few Iranian asylum seekers agree to return to voluntarily (and who can blame them?). This leaves several thousand Iranian boat arrivals in limbo, unless Australia can convince Iran to agree to have them back.

Bishop as supplicant will have to concede if our foreign policy is to be driven by our policy on ‘unlawful arrivals’.

Ms Bishop will have other issues on her agenda, of course. She’ll discuss US–Iranian cooperation in the fight against (to which Australia has just increased the number of elite troops on the retraining mission for the Iraqi army). Finally, in the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran, she’ll discuss possible sanctions relief, especially since Australia has its own ‘autonomous’ sanctions on Iran (outside the UN framework) effective in specialist areas of mining, technology, banking and insurance.

It is highly unlikely that Ms Bishop will promise to remove them before the UN sanctions are removed, but it is certainly possible that she’ll promise to scrap them at the same time (which, according to Supreme Leader Khamenei, is as soon as the final deal is agreed).

But, as I see it, the Australian sanctions weren’t placed on Iran pending some watery agreement (to which Australia is not a party) that sees Iran retain its entire nuclear infrastructure. On the contrary, the Australian sanctions were enforced to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear weapons capable, and to retard its cash flow for undermining regional stability. Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of the national daily The Australian rightly points out, “Effective sanctions are extraordinarily difficult to assemble and impose. And Obama has put this all in the hands of the UN, the very byword of procrastination and inaction.”

Indeed, back in 2012, when still in opposition, Ms Bishop issued a fiery statement about Iran’s position on Israel. Ahead of a visit to Iran by Australia’s UN ambassador, Ms Bishop said, “Australia currently imposes a comprehensive range of sanctions against Iran due to its ongoing pursuit of nuclear technology and its failure to comply with inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency… In addition to concerns about its nuclear program, Iran’s leaders continue to make bellicose statements with regard to Israel and the regime has been an active sponsor of terrorist organisations around the world.”

And it is on this last point that Ms Bishop’s visit has raised my eyebrows. Will she, during her visit, raise with Iran its ongoing commitment to destroy Israel?

In her 2012 statement, Ms Bishop also said, “If the visit goes ahead it will be another example of the [then] Labor Government compromising longstanding foreign policy principles in pursuit of [the short-term agenda of] votes for its campaign for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council.” The same rings true now. Will Bishop sacrifice longstanding foreign policy principles in pursuit of the short-term agenda of an agreement on asylum seekers?

A former Australian prime minister once memorably described the quality of his opponent’s arguments as like being flogged with warm lettuce. The phrase has entered the Australian vernacular. I have no doubt that Ms Bishop will provide the Iranians with a warm lettuce flogging over its human rights record, the persecution of the Baha’i, hanging of Kurds, gays and minors and other little grievances that she’ll have to tell critics back home she raised with the Iranians.

For Australia to be sending its foreign minister so soon after the nuclear framework was announced is a big win for Iran. Although we aren’t part of the negotiations, we are rightly seen as significant due to our close relationship with the US and the fact that, unlike so many other Western countries, Australia has maintained an embassy in Iran since the 1979 revolution.

But her visit is also significant for the West. Hers will be the first foreign ministerial visit by a major Western country since the framework deal, and will therefore indicate to Iran and those watching whether or not the West is willing to stand up to Iran or roll over.

Sadly, I fear the latter. I fear we will find out that the Australian Government wants a deal about asylum seekers more than it wants to speak truth to power, as it were, and honestly tell Iran that we are aware of the dangers it has been posing to regional stability and will maintain foreign policy settings in this regard.

To conclude with Sheridan: “In the recent agreement, or framework, there is nothing about Iran’s international behaviour, nothing about its sponsorship of terrorism, no limitation on its missile program, nothing about threatening to wipe another nation off the map, as though it would be bad form to consider such language and behaviour relevant in assessing whether a nation should possess the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Nothing has represented better the collapse of will among some of the American leadership than the continued fancy that this negotiation will ‘empower the moderates’ and ‘sideline the extremists’ within Iran’s leadership. How often has that wretched formulation been used to justify walking away from hard policies?”

About the Author
Michael Danby is a federal Member of the Australian Parliament.
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