Australia has proven its alignment with the United States on many occasions, most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, our alliance with the United States should not trap us in a position that is detrimental to our interests.
In early August 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper visited Australia and presented Prime Minister Scott Morrison with a hard question. The Americans want Australia to join a coalition to protect freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. At face value, this is an open and shut case. About a quarter of the world oil supply travels through that strait and Iran has made explicit threats to close it. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have impounded three oil tankers, heightening fears that Iran is serious about disrupting the flow in this major oil artery.
The United States has been looking for allies to counter the Iranian threat. Washington is keen to build an international coalition to fend off any Iranian threat and has invited its allies to join the US naval presence in the Persian Gulf. The deployment of Australian forces to protect free navigation would be a significant gesture in support of the US position. However, the question that needs to be asked is about the impact of such deployment on the already tense stand-off between the United States and Iran.
The German response to the above question has been unequivocal. The German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that such a show of force in the region would undermine the prospects of diplomacy, insisting that “there is no military solution” to the crisis. Indeed, the crisis was fabricated by the Trump Administration by way of turning up the heat on Iran and exerting “maximum pressure” to achieve what amounts to regime change by stealth. While President Trump denies pursuing regime change, it was his decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018 that threw the region into this crisis. Trump tore up a deal that had brought Iran’s nuclear program under exceptionally strict international scrutiny with enforceable limitations on Iran’s uranium enrichment and stockpiles of low-enriched uranium; Trump imposed unilateral sanctions on Iran even though at the time Iran was in compliance with JCPOA provisions. US sanctions are extensive, aimed at crippling the Iranian economy and forcing the Iranian regime to change its ways. That is Washington parlance for Iran giving up everything it has built since the 1979 Islamic revolution, that includes its ideology of anti-Americanism, its links with anti-US forces in the region and its ballistic program. Iran changing its way is code for Iran no longer being ruled by the incumbent clerical class. And the Iranian leadership are not blind to this not-so subtle message. The irony is such maximum pressure simply reinforces the antagonism and fear of US military action.
The US maximum pressure strategy has borne no fruit. Sanctions have crippled the economy but not the ruling regime. If anything, the Iranian leadership feel besieged and see the United Stated as poised for intervention. They would not admit it, but the Iranian leaders are anxious about Washington’s next move. The build-up of naval presence will feed into this anxiety. Tehran will see the move as another step in a strategic game of chess under the cover of protecting freedom of navigation. This will be seen as an existential threat. And the response will be calibrated accordingly.
The stakes are very high and neither the United States nor Iran are prepared to look weak and step back from the brink. A further deployment of warships to Persian Gulf will escalate tensions and increase the prospects of conflict. An all-out war in the Persian Gulf would be devastating for Australia. While Australia does not rely on oil from the region, its trading partners in Asia are heavily dependent on it. Open hostilities will be extremely disruptive to this flow and will put into insignificance any damage Iran has inflicted on oil flow to-date. The international response to the crisis, therefore, needs to be measured, commensurate with the threat and take into account consequences.
Australia has been a loyal US partner, with troop deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is no question in Washington about where we stand on major international issues. But the alliance should not trap us in a position that is clearly reckless and presents high risk for the region and Australia’s national interests. Our alliance is strong enough to weather the occasional divergence of policy.
Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh researches Middle East & Central Asian Politics at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (Deakin University), and is the convenor of Middle East Studies Forum. His latest publication is with Kylie Baxter: Middle East Politics and International Relations: Crisis Zone (2018). He can be contacted on twitter @S_Akbarzadeh
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.