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Australia is likely to be drawn into U.S. hostilities with Iran

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(Image courtesy @TwoEyeHead / Twitter)

Australia must think through its interests and principles with the U.S. before taking part in an attack in Iran, writes former executive chairman of UNSCOM, the UN Special Commission to disarm Iraq, Richard Butler.

U.S. hostility towards Iran has reached a threatening level. Disarray in policy making, lies and the absence of any clear strategy is involved. War is now at hand and may even seem easier for the U.S.

Australia must think through its interests and principles on this and, ask the U.S. substantive questions. Our participation in an attack on Iran is not simply a matter of Alliance duty. None of the main leaders who will meet Trump at Osaka, other than Putin can help. He could hose it all down. But, will he choose to?

Last week (25 June), President Trump publicly threatened Iran with obliteration. The next day, he claimed he wanted to talk with them. On Thursday (27 June) in the U.S., the first of two televised debates amongst ten candidates for nomination as Democrat candidates for the presidency. The candidate who was seen to have won the zinger contest was Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. She remarked that foreign policy should not be made ”through tweets sent by a person in his bathrobe, at 5 am”.

Trump’s tweet directed at Iran was replied to by the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. He said he thought its author displayed serious instability. This reportedly made the “stable genius” angry.

This exchange was occasioned by Iran’s shoot-down of a U.S. “surveillance” drone, which Iran claimed had violated Iranian air space. The U.S. claimed that its aircraft had been operating in international air space. Both sides published coordinates designed to demonstrate the validity of its claim.

The U.S. prepared a retaliatory strike but Trump cancelled it, he claimed with ten minutes to spare. He said he had asked a last-minute question about likely civilian casualties the strike would cause. When he was told they would number some 150, he said he thought that it would represent a more than proportional response, so he cancelled it — even though, he said, the aircraft were “locked and loaded”. It was indicated later that the mission had not, in fact, commenced.

Commentators experienced in situation-room briefings expressed extreme doubt about Trump’s considered narrative, stating that damage estimates were always given, up-front, in such briefings, as they formed a core part of the advice and analysis presented.

No one is unaccustomed to Trump lying about virtually everything. Indeed it is striking to experience how commonplace it now is, in mainstream media here, that casual reference is made to the President lying — again. But unusual alarm is being expressed about the current policy formulation process in Washington. Descriptions of dysfunction, general disarray and, lamentations about the absence of any clear strategy abound. And, this is compounded by continual uncertainty about what the President will say about any of it, at any stage.

In this particular case, it must be noted that these critical observations did not include any questioning of the legitimacy or purpose of U.S. surveillance flights being conducted over the Persian Gulf, or, the large scale U.S. military deployments there. That is a deeper, geopolitical question touching upon the U.S.’ imperial reach and is beyond the scope of this essay.

What is at issue here is the fact that, at present, the U.S. has set itself on a path of conflict with Iran, which is widely thought would have catastrophic outcomes.

The origin of this present situation is Trump’s decision, a year ago, to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), under which its program leading to the development of nuclear weapons was put on ice for at least 15 years. JCPOA continues to be endorsed by all other parties to the agreement and all other relevant states, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, Israel and, the UAE. It has been recognised by the UN Security Council. Up to the present, Iran has adhered to it, in spite of the U.S.’ withdrawal and that has been verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Now, the Trump Administration is pressuring others, including NATO allies, to join it in denouncing JCPOA and in the coming fight with Iran. Sanctions are threatened on those, including allies, who trade with or extend financial services to Iran.

This U.S. obsession with Iran and apparent determination to enter into conflict with it is marked by two main things:

  1. A U.S./Saudi/Israel alliance aimed at Iran and supported by massive new U.S. arms transfers to the area, principally to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Trump is going ahead with $8 billion of such sales to Saudi, circumventing Congress’ rejection of it on the grounds of Saudi military action in Yemen and the Saudi murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
  2. The weakening of nuclear non-proliferation strictures applying to the region. The U.S. is underway to make transfers of nuclear technology to Saudi; continues to protect Israel’s nuclear weapons status and, has essentially implemented Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies towards Iran and its nuclear activities.

Beyond the Middle East/Gulf region, the Trump Administration has advanced further its program of dismantling the international nuclear arms control regime, as presently constituted. The major Treaty on which it is now focused, for extinction, is the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The U.S. is reportedly considering reviving its nuclear testing program.

These are the contexts in which we can expect – although it may already have been launched – the U.S. to ask Australia to join it in the fight against Iran; that is, beyond any virtually unconsulted involvement by Australia, through U.S. use of the joint communications facilities in Australia.

If we are asked to take part in military action against Iran, deploying our military resources, how will Australian policymakers assess that?

It would be a more than bitter irony for us to take part in military action against Iran on the side of two nuclear-armed states ... in order to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

If sense were to prevail we would want to know: why, to what end, with what strategy, with what proposed outcome, for what duration. We should reject any suggestion – which we can expect will be made – that elementally, we are being asked to take part as a dutiful ally.

Above all, we should ask the questions about the nuclear arms control regime — as a country, which for almost 50 years, has strongly supported and in some instances played a key part in the development of that regime. That commitment has supported our national security more certainly than guaranties voiced by the U.S. It’s why, for example, Indonesia is not nuclear-armed. We need to know, what the U.S. proposes to replace JCPOA with. So far it has told no one. But it has spoken of war.

It would be a more than bitter irony for us to take part in military action against Iran on the side of two nuclear-armed states, U.S. and Israel, and a nuclear aspirant, Saudi Arabia, in order to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Having made this point, it should be remarked that the whole phenomenon of the possession of nuclear weapons is marked by a fundamental, "have and have-not", hypocrisy. Such inequality does not sustain stability in relations amongst states.

Trump was in Osaka for the G20 meeting on Friday (29 June). The Iran issue will have been discussed, mainly privately. France, Germany, UK, Russia and China all want JCPOA to continue. They do not want the U.S. to attack Iran.

China’s focus will be on trade issues (and it ignores sanctions on trade with Iran). The western three are all weakened for various well-known reasons. So, that leaves Russia.

Trump and Putin are scheduled to hold a bilateral meeting. A critical issue will be what decision Putin will take on Trump and Iran. If he wanted to, he could offer significant assistance, given his influence in Tehran. In a more sensible world than our current one, the two could even decide to approach Iran together, to work out a modus vivendi. A problem with this, on Trump’s side, no matter what warm feelings he has expressed in the past towards Putin personally, is that he may now be constrained in making any agreement with Putin by his unresolved domestic political situation with respect to his past dealings with Russia — including during the 2016 U.S. Election.

Lies do come home to roost.

Whatever we decide to do in response to any U.S. request for us to take part in action against Iran should be based on our national interest and principles and, hopefully, being told no more lies. The principle that whatever one does is best done for the right reasons, seems sound.

Richard Butler is a former Ambassador to the United Nations and Executive Chairman of UNSCOM, the UN Special Commission to disarm Iraq. This article was published on 'Pearls and Irritations' under the title and is republished with permission.

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