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Kevin Rudd's Iran problem

  • 24 February 2010

Thumbing their nose at the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Security Council, the Iranian leadership has refused to suspend uranium enrichment. Instead President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran has managed to enrich uranium up to 20 per cent.

This claim has been dismissed by US officials as fanciful. There are serious doubts about Iran's ability to achieve such high levels of uranium enrichment. It is most likely that Ahmadinejad is upping the ante for his own domestic advantage. However misguided his efforts at brinksmanship, Ahmadinejad has perhaps provided a catalyst for international action. 

Most observers accept that Iran is serious about mastering nuclear weapons production. Ahmadinejad recently scoffed that 'we can build atomic bombs if we want to, and there is nothing anyone can do about it'. This may sound like schoolyard taunting, but it has given the international community reason to pause.

Australia cannot afford to be silent on this matter. Australia has a history of commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and has recently formed the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) co-chaired by Gareth Evans, the former Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Last month Defence Minister John Faulkner invoked the Weapons of Mass Destruction Act to stop the shipment of industrial pipes to Iran because of fears about how they could be used. PM Kevin Rudd applauded this move and warned that Iran is becoming a danger to Australia: 'They are developing a nuclear weapons program which is against the security interests of Australia, against the security interests of our wider region, against the security interests of the world and the international community.'

But what can Australia do to stop nuclear weaponisation in Iran? To date, Australia has not endorsed calls for military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. The general consensus in Canberra seems to be that any military strike would complicate an already messy situation. Iran's alliance with Hizbullah in Lebanon and its stranglehold on the Hormuz Strait, a critical bottleneck for oil shipment out of the Persian Gulf, give Iran a menacing advantage, making any direct attack on Iran fraught with regional implications.

The Iranian authorities have not been reticent in pointing to the cards they hold.

The alternative to military action is harsher economic sanctions. This, however, does not seem to hold much promise either.

The United States has embarked on a diplomatic offensive to garner support for a fourth round of sanctions.