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Kevin Rudd's Iran problem


Ahmadinejad 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. On a tour of Arab states last week, the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton chose very harsh words to describe the Islamic regime. This signals a reappraisal of earlier efforts to bring the Iranian authorities to the negotiating table. President Obama's charm offensive on Iran lost its edge following the fraudulent June 2009 election and the repression of the reform movement.

In the first half of 2009, the Iranian authorities did not know how to respond to Obama's messages of good will. But once the US made clear its disapproval of the thuggish behaviour of the authorities against protestors, the familiar dynamic of anti-US hostility was restored. Against the backdrop of growing international concern about Iran's nuclear program and its mistreatment of dissidents, Tehran has reverted to its policy of non-cooperation.

Provided Russia and China come to the party at the UN Security Council, the last option before military action will be to impose a fourth round of sanctions. But given that Iran has been under sanctions for 30 years, it is hard to imagine how a new round could change the resolve of the mullahs. If the Iraq experience is any indication, the regime will simply divert resources from the civil sector to the military and security in an effort to 'ride out the storm', and blame the international community for the inevitable fall in health care and living standards.

The Australian Government is aware of the challenge, but for two important reasons it feels it has no option but to join the international chorus. First, Australia has an ideological commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and Iran is blatantly contravening its NPT obligations. Second, Australia has a strategic alliance with the US and the 'Iran problem' offers an opportunity for the Rudd Government to demonstrate its commitment to its ally.

This is a tricky issue as Kevin Rudd came to office on a wave of anti-war backlash against John Howard and Australia's commitment to the 2003 war in Iraq. At the time, the anti-war campaign and the Labor Party were accused of weakening the alliance with the US. The Labor Government has been at pains to demonstrate its steadfastness in relation to the US and its strategic interests. The 'Iran problem' presents an opportunity to silence those critics and consolidate the US-Australian strategic alliance.

Shahram AkbarzadehAssociate Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh is Deputy Director of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, University of Melbourne, and co-author of US Foreign Policy in the Middle East.

Topic tags: Shahram Akbarzadeh, iran problem, iraq war, Ahmadinejad, us alliance



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Existing comments

I remember once seeing an illustration of St George slaying the dragon, except that the caption read 'Matilda the Martyr and the Man in the Tin Suit'.

Professor Akbarzadeh refers to the 'Iran problem' (the inverted commas are his) but should we see the issue really as the 'American problem'?

Surely this is an opportunity for Rudd to do what Howard never did and that is to demonstrate our commitment to the US alliance by privately counselling our ally against escalation whilst overtly hosing down the hype and hysteria that zionists, vested interests, and right-wing media are keen to generate.

Israel, India, Pakistan, and probably Korea have nuclear weapons. They've never used them, and we've learned to live with them. Why should a nuclear-armed Iran be any greater problem than the others?

Ginger Meggs | 24 February 2010  

Well said Mr Meggs! I hope we all live to see the day when our elected government has the courage to hose down the hysteria that Zionist supporters have been generating around Iran of recent years.

We don't need a Ph.D in politics to see that nuclear armed Israel's unceasing screeching about Iran being an 'existential threat' serves to distract the world's attention from Israel's multi decade long brutal occupation and creeping annexation of Palestine.

Remember when President Obama was flavour of the month? As tough as he got was saying, "No more settlements." Let us look forward to the day when Obama says, "No settlements!" And then, and then, and then ... acts accordingly. Peace on Earth - at least potentially.

We notice no mention in this piece of nuclear armed Israel: a state, unlike all nations in the Mid-East, that possesses weapons of mass destruction, including hundreds of nuclear weapons, and refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

What sayest thou Shahram Akbarzadeh?

DAVID A HICKS | 24 February 2010  

'once the US made clear its disapproval of the thuggish behaviour of the authorities against protestors, the familiar dynamic of anti-US hostility was restored'

Above statement is really nice. That clears up how the Iranian government has given a lot of ground to the Americans.

By claiming Iran has no capacity yet to own nuclear weapons, this provocation would force the Iranians to seek nuclear more vigorously. And if found out they own such things, that would give legitimacy to attack Iran. If the Americans and its allies get it right this time, unlike invasion of Iraq, the Iranian administration would give the upper moral ground to the Americans.

So who are the cleverer?

Azure | 24 February 2010  

Israel has not been making any noises that it intends to wipe any of its neighbours off the map. Such cannot be said for Ahmadinejad.

It has been reported that he has called Israel "a filthy bacteria", and has said that Israel must be destroyed.

I think that Israel has every right to be concerned about an nuclear-armed Iran.

Apart from the much hated Jewish nation, Iran's Sunni Muslim neighbours are keeping a wary eye on the expansion of Shi'a Islam from within Iran. Israel is not the only country to fear what Iran may do with nuclear arms.

Timothy Scully | 24 February 2010  

If the US and its allies took a similar stand against Israel, India, Pakistan, Korea and led by example then its credibility on this issue means something. Selective sanctions and protestations will only stand for naught.

Evenhandedness | 24 February 2010  

Let us separate the rhetoric from the reality. Iranian leaders have used some colourful language but so have US leaders - remember GWB's 'axis of evil'.

The reality is that no nuclear state (with the exception of the US when it was the only nuclear state) has ever used nuclear weapons.

The prime purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter. That's why the UK, France, USSR and China initially sought them, and why Israel, India, Pakistan, and Korea followed, and why now, possibly, Iran is also seeking them.

And given the propensity of the 'West' over the past few centuries to intervene in resource-rich countries when it (the West) perceived a threat to its unfettered access to those resources, can anyone blame them (the resource-rich countries) for wanting to secure the deterrent that nuclear weapons seem to promise?

The 'Middle East' may be a mess, not the least because of previous western interventions, but it's not going to get better while the West continues to interfere.

A good ally is like a good friend, someone who will tell you plainly when s/he thinks you are wrong. That, I think, is the opportunity that Rudd now has. But sadly I don't think he will take it.

Ginger Meggs | 24 February 2010  

It is false to claim that Kevin Rudd came into office "on a wave of anti-war backlash" against "the 2003 war in Iraq". That's a throw-away line easily made, but one that ought not be taken seriously by analysts. The same applies to the author's claim that Australia has "an ideological commitment" to nuclear non-proliferation. Canberra abides by non-proliferation "norms" to the extent that the foreign policy elite assesses that it serves Australia's state interests. If Australia had an "ideological commitment" to non-proliferation then Canberra would have voted against the US-India nuclear deal at the NSG.

If Australia had an "ideological commitment" to non-proliferation then it would not have watered down its own nuclear safeguards policy, in relation to the export of uranium, partly at the behest of resource corporations.

MarkoB | 01 March 2010  

Iran has its own uranium deposits, and it needs more power generation. From the time of the Shah, it has been training nuclear engineers for this reason.

Iran can also reasonably expects that oil export revenues will start declining in the next decade. It needs to have other industries; exporting nuclear technology is suitable. Iran may not, however, have sufficient uranium as to export it as a commodity.

Iran has also seen what happens to regimes the US wants changed, if the US KNOWS full well that regime has previously gotten rid of its WMD.

The surest way of not letting US attempt Paul "first we take Baghdad, then we take Tehran" Wolfowitz's mad scheme is to achieve some sort of detente through possession of nuclear weapons.

David Arthur | 04 March 2010  

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