Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Iran sabre-rattling is not in Australia's interest



Sir Henry Wotton, 16th century ambassador, is famously supposed to have said that 'an ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country'. A new book by politics professor and former army intelligence officer, Clinton Fernandes, Island off the Coast of Asia: Instruments of Statecraft in Australian Foreign Policy, argues that Australia tends to define this 'good' primarily in terms of the perceived economic interests of Australia's elites, rather than the security interests of its people.

Clinton Fernandes, Island off the Coast of Asia: Instruments of Statecraft in Australian Foreign PolicyThis has been manifested in Australia sacrificing its own diplomatic interests on the altar of first British and then US priorities, especially in the areas of security and trade. He cites the 2003 Iraq war as one example where the desire for US approval and trade trumped the actual interests of Australians in being free from terror.

Fernandes' main interest is in examining how Australia's foreign loyalties have affected relations with up and coming powers in East Asia (especially where the US's economic interests clash with those of Australia in relation to China). His book, however, seems equally relevant to viewing other, equally fraught, areas.

Take Saturday's terror attack in Iran. Australia's embassy in Iran has issued an unequivocal condemnation of the attack on a parade in Ahvaz marking the anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq War. The attack killed ten soldiers and up to 20 civilians (including a four year old).

The embassy's condemnation contrasts markedly with other reported government statements. On 27 July, 'senior government figures' were quoted by the ABC as saying that Australia would 'likely play a role in identifying targets in Iran' for US attacks which were said to be forthcoming 'perhaps within the next month' — notwithstanding its certified compliance with the UN approved nuclear deal.

While it is not clear what, if any, role Australia had in this drama or even whether the Ahvaz attack was indeed a realisation of the threat alleged in the ABC article, it is hardly paranoid to think that more lay behind the attack than a group representing the (genuinely persecuted) Arabs of South-West Iran. The US and their Gulf allies have been rattling sabres even in the wake of the shooting.

An advisor to the government of the United Arab Emirates issued something very close to a claim of responsibility, while US President Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, boasted at a rally the same day of starving the Iranian people into selling their organs for food and promised that regime change was coming soon.


"Wherever the truth behind the Ahvaz attack lies, Australian government figures' claimed declaration of willingness to assist an unprovoked attack on Iran is new — and not obviously in Australia's own interests."


At the same rally, the head of the MEK (a secretive opposition movement which allied with Saddam against Iran and now has close relations with the US government through Giuliani and John Bolton) described establishing 'units of rebellion' to launch attacks against the Iranian government. Officially, the US government, while (belatedly) denying direct responsibility, told Iran to 'look in the mirror' for blame for the attack.

Wherever the truth behind the Ahvaz attack lies, Australian government figures' claimed declaration of willingness to assist an unprovoked attack on Iran is new — and not obviously in Australia's own interests. Australia has traditionally been the one US ally which has provided a back door to Iran — maintaining an embassy throughout the vicissitudes of the Islamic Revolution and the plunging relationship between 'the Evil Regime of the Mullahs' and 'Shaitan e Bozorg (the Great Satan)'.

It has also (notwithstanding the crippling sanctions regime) managed to maintain a trade relationship with Iran to the tune of around $200 billion. As one of the most competent enemies of the Islamic State (ISIS), one would also have thought that the Islamic Republic would be a natural ally of Australia in the War on Terror™.

Aside from this, Australia has long sought to pressure Iran to take back Iranian asylum seekers who flee to Australia for protection. (Iran consistently refuses to accept citizens who are forcibly repatriated.) While refoulement is in breach of international law and basic standards of humanity, Australia obviously regards it as central to its own national interest, given the billions of dollars it has sunk into the policy and the bipartisan support which maltreatment of refugees enjoys.

A realist view of foreign policy would therefore suggest that Australia, while not heavily engaged with Iran, would have too many security and diplomatic interests to squander lightly.

The fact that its officials are willing to jettison these without obviously getting anything in return, would seem to vindicate Fernandes' suggestion that the rather nebulous fact of relationship with the US itself and the supposed economic benefits which flow from that features much more heavily in Australia's security calculus than its own real or perceived interests.



Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Iran, US, Ahvaz attack, Donald Trump



submit a comment

Existing comments

Well said, Justin Glyn

Tony Kevin | 27 September 2018  

Iran is the main sponsor of terrorism throughout the world. It provides funding, weapons, training and sanctuary to numerous terrorist groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas. Iran has successfully enriched uranium and developed missile technology, and governments rightly fear that in future Iran might transfer weapons of mass destruction to militant groups. It is in everyone’s interest to see regime change in Iran. To use a flimsy excuse like “security and diplomatic interests” as sufficient reason to not co-operate in efforts at regime change smacks of either anti-Americanism, or an attempt to curry favour with Iran.

Ross Howard | 28 September 2018  

It is hard to find really "good" powers operative in the debacles of the middle East over the last 20 years plus, but there have certainly been a surplus of bad people, with the Iranians plus their Russian collaborators among the very worst. The constant undue emphasis on differentially criticising the Western Democracies, which are still our best last hope, seems unworthy.

Eugene | 02 October 2018  

Thanks for a very important article, about sabre rattling by Iran, Justin. It is great that you have quoted from Clinton Fernandes's book "Island off the Coast of Australia" which demonstrates how Australian leaders have supported the sabre rattling of the British and US empires for economic purposes. I am currently reading it. And we need to be reminded that the US and the UK have used terrorist forces for its own ends too eg recently in Syria. Ross Howard believes that it is anti American to criticise the US leadership (which is enmeshed with the US Military Industrial Complex) for these policies. The totally unnecessary recent war in Iraq led to the formation of ISIS according to Tony Blair and he was one of the major promoters of that was. L would respectfully disagree. There are many Americans who oppose these policies as well. And we should never forget that after WW2 ASIO employed Nazi war criminals in this country to spy on people in the union, peace, social justice and human rights movements and did little to keep tabs on the pro Nazi Ustasha organisation that detonated explosives in Yugoslav offices and travel agencies in the early 1970s. Then from 1965, our leaders have supported the Indonesian military as it has committed terrorism, genocide and human rights abuses in East Timor, Acheh, parts of Indonesia itself and West Papua where it is still occurring, Surely we need to be demanding that our leaders oppose all forms of terrorism whoever it is carrying it out.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 07 March 2019  

Similar Articles

China needs more than Vatican diplomacy

  • Jeremy Clarke
  • 28 September 2018

In light of the self-serving and at times criminal behavior of bishops around the world as revealed by the sexual abuse crisis, it might seem strange that the appointment of bishops is such a neuralgic issue for Vatican-China relations. But in China, the appointment of bishops has become the litmus test of a so-called orthodoxy in much the same way right-to-life issues are in the USA.


Bali nightmare on Mick Shann Terrace

  • Bee Spencer
  • 26 September 2018

Day by day, home owners in this Canberra street scout out potential wealth and children walk to school, unaware of who they've attached their names to. Mick Shann wasn't just any public official and his legacy lives on in other places. In scars carved into the backs of miraculous survivors. In empty coffins and overflowing graves.