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Australia as an Honest Broker in the Iran-Saudi Dispute

19 Oct 2016
By Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh
Julie Bishop Iran. Photo Credit: Foreign Minister website: Creative Commons

Australia has a well-developed relationship with Saudi Arabia and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Iran. There is an abundance of goodwill for Australia throughout the region and across the divide. But this capital is seriously under-utilised and Australia is punching well below its weight. 

In late September Australia’s Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister Steven Ciobo led a business delegation to Iran to rebuild trade ties. Signalling the level of commitment and expectations, the minister reopened the Austrade office that was closed in 2010 in accordance with the imposition of international sanctions on Iran.

Australia is searching for new opportunities in the lucrative Middle East markets. With the gradual removal of international sanctions, Iran is looking more and more promising for Australia’s export industry. Yet there are obvious risks to Australia’s future investments and interests. Apart from the intangible red tape in Iran that could frustrate foreign investors, there are larger issues of regional instability that put our interests at risk. Australia cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and watch the region slide into anarchy.

Tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia has grown to unprecedented levels. Both states claim to have been wronged by the other and are seeking to shore up allies in a menacing line up, like two opposing armies poised to strike. The recent flare up centred around Saudi Arabia’s decision to bar Iranian pilgrims from this year’s hajj last month.

This dispute exploded into a very public war of words. The Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei lambasted the Saudis for being “blasphemous and faithless” calling on the Muslim world to reclaim Islam’s holy sites of Mecca and Medina from Saudi “oppression”. The Saudi Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh returned the favour by arguing that Iranians are descendent of the Zoroastrian faith and never submitted to Islam. Each is calling the other non-Muslim, which is the biggest insult you could throw at a Muslim. Even the well-mannered Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif got on the act and tweeted that: “Indeed; no resemblance between Islam of Iranians & most Muslims and bigoted extremism that Wahabbi top cleric & Saudi terror masters preach”.

The hajj dispute relates to the death of hundreds of Iranian pilgrims last year, which soured an already tense relationship between the two regional powers. The real issue is the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional hegemony, advanced under the banner of true Islam. This has only inflamed tensions and widened the gap on the ground. Sunni rebel groups in Syria subscribe to this interpretation and accuse Iran of sponsoring a kafir in Damascus. The sectarian wars raging in Syria and Iraq are only going to be further inflamed with the latest public exchange of insults. The sectarianism flame also has the tendency to jump national barriers, as evident in reported sectarian incidents across the Arab world as well as Central and South Asia.

This cannot be good for anyone: not for the people whose lives are being turned upside down in Syria and Iraq; not for other governments in the region who are stretched to the limit and try to put out spot fires while more fuel is poured on the flames of sectarian hatred; not for international corporations whose business is put at risk; and not for the international community, which has been caught completely unprepared for the ferocity and intensity of the conflicts in the region and the accompanying humanitarian disaster. No one will benefit from further escalation of tensions, not even the two rowdy culprits.

Yet there is no sign of any attempt to calm tensions. That’s because the Muslim world is paralysed by the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. There is a need for an external honest broker, a role that cannot be played by the United States or Russia because both are tainted by their support for the opposing states. This is an opportunity for Australia.

Australia has a well-developed relationship with Saudi Arabia and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. These relations have focused on expanding trade with the region, with higher education as a key plank of this export strategy. This has won Australia many friends. More recently, Australia has been among the first countries to welcome Iran’s nuclear deal and pursue the resumption of bilateral trade to help bring it out of the cold.

There is an abundance of goodwill capital for Australia throughout the region, across the divide. But this capital is seriously under-utilised and the country is punching well below its weight. Australia needs to set its sights higher and have a more ambitious plan. We have the capacity to pursue a grander agenda. Advocating a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a noble and ambitious goal. We can take a lead here, and this can only enhance Australia’s standing.

Shahram Akbarzadeh is Professor of Middle East and Central Asian politics and ARC Future Fellow at Deakin University. He is a Convenor for the Future of the Middle East conference. Twitter: @S_Akbarzadeh

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.