27 June 2019
With war with Iran looming, Australia will soon need to decide whether it supports an increasingly rogue United States' foreign policy.
Until now Australia has supported the Iran nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). When the hard won deal was finally signed in 2015, then-US president Barack Obama said "There really are only two alternatives here: either Iran getting a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through negotiation, or it is resolved through force, through war. Those are the options."
Under Trump's presidency, the US has withdrawn from multiple international treaties, blaming others, often without justification.
In 2018 he withdrew from the JCPOA, despite there being no evidence to suggest Iran was not complying with the agreement. Since then he has ramped up sanctions and used US financial dominance to heavily restrict Europe's ability to trade with Iran.
France, Britain, Germany, the EU and Japan are all actively advocating de-escalation and greater diplomacy. But imposition of even harsher sanctions by the US will most likely continue. The result so far has been a hardening of Iranian resolve, rather than re-opening negotiations.
Politically, war with Iran would distract from Donald Trump's domestic problems, and cement his hold on office. However it runs the risk of destroying the NATO alliance, given the strong support of the JCPOA among European countries. Additionally both Russia and China have significant political interests in Iran.
In April more than 50 retired American generals and diplomats urged rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, stating issues of concern could be negotiated diplomatically. They advised against a war because they saw no good outcome. The statement did not exonerate Iran's destabilising behaviour nor ignore Iran's link to terrorism. But it did acknowledge that the 2015 nuclear deal "put limitations on Iran's nuclear program and significantly improved the security of the United States and our allies".
Other treaties have also been in the firing line. In April this year Trump announced at the National Rifle Association annual meeting that the US will no longer be a signatory to the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The NRA has been long opposed the ATT, describing it as amounting to "international gun control". The NRA donated more than $US30 million to Trump's election campaign.
Leaving the ATT absolves the US from its commitment to ensuring the weapons they export do not end up being used for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or terrorist acts.
This enables their planned $US7.6 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis face accusations of war crimes, including indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on Yemeni civilians and civilian infrastructure. The Saudi led naval blockade has led to the deaths of 85,000 Yemeni children (as reported by Save the Children).
Arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been suspended by Germany, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark, and condemned by the UK House of Lords and the US Congress. The UK High Court last week found UK sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia were illegal, given the Saudi record on human rights. Despite this growing boycott, and despite being a signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty, Australia also continues to sell weapons to the Saudis.
In other major treaty withdrawals, the US has also withdrawn from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the UN Human Rights Council, and is seriously considering withdrawing its signature from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Recently the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency declared at a public forum that the "United States believes that Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium" - again despite no credible evidence. Walking away from the test ban treaty would remove constraints on the resumption of nuclear testing by others far more than on the United States.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is currently touring the Middle East and Asia looking to build a global coalition against Iran. War between the US and Iran would have significant consequences for Australia.
How should Australia navigate this? Should we remain "joined at the hip"?
Going to war in Australia remains a "captain's pick"- unlike in the US and the UK, there is no requirement for debate and decision by both houses of government. Are we ready to join another "Coalition of the willing"? Such a decision must be informed by past conflicts.
The 2003 Iraq war resulted in the deaths of an estimated one million Iraqis, yet Australia has never fully reflected on our involvement.
The 2004 Flood Inquiry regarding Iraq was carefully limited to our intelligence services. It found some intelligence failure but no political interference. John Howard commented surprisingly frankly on the findings, saying "there's all too ready a willingness to accept the proposition that the intelligence assessment determines the political decision. It doesn't."
Britain's much more comprehensive Chilcot Inquiry found that flawed intelligence was used to justify the invasion, that Iraq posed no immediate national security threat, that the allies acted militarily before all diplomatic options had been exhausted and there was a lack of planning for what would happen once Mr Hussein was removed. "Military action at that time was not a last resort."
The Vietnam War also has lessons. Malcolm Fraser, who was Defence Minister at the time Australia decided to join the conflict, was livid when he found out many years later that the CIA knew this was an unwinnable war, even before Australia committed any troops.
Once again Australia was drawn into a conflict where military action was not appropriate. More than three million Vietnamese died, as did five hundred Australian servicemen.
At times like this, the ANZUS treaty is often brandished to justify joining US forces. Whatever the logic, the ANZUS alliance clearly does not require us to attack Iran, a country which does not threaten Australia or the US.
In addition to the death toll and destruction, the destabilisation would be much greater than happened in Iraq. Al-Qaeda and IS/Daesh thrived in the power vacuum created by that conflict. A war with Iran could easily spread and engulf large parts of the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and nuclear armed Israel.
A constructive approach would be to encourage diplomacy and de-escalation, as we are doing in the China-US trade war. Reforming Australia's war powers would also be transformative, requiring both houses of parliament to debate and vote before deciding to go to war. We should also honour our commitments under the Arms Trade Treaty, and stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Finally, it is clearly time to develop a more independent Australian foreign policy. Australia's strategic interests should be first and foremost. War must always be the last resort.
This article was written by Dr Margie Beavis and first published, as an Opinion piece, in the Canberra Times on 27 June 2019.
Are we ready to join another "Coalition of the Willing"?