A recent article on the ABC website by Andrew Probyn and Andrew Green suggested that Australia may be poised to play a role in a threatened United States attack on Iran. That role would, it was suggested, be played by the United States controlled spy facility at Pine Gap in the Northern Territory. The prospect of a US attack on Iran has increased in recent weeks, mainly because of a series of moves by the United States and some typically exaggerated rhetoric from United States President Donald Trump. In a tweet from Trump last week, directed at Iran’s President Rouhani, he said: NEVER EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE YOU EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. (capitals in the original).This is eerily similar to the threats Trump issued against North Korea, which was followed by a summit between the two presidents. Trump was never going to carry out his threats against North Korea because their security had been underwritten by both Russia and China, and the United States was in no position to start a war against either or both of those nations. The issue here, however, is not whether or not Trump will carry out his threats against Iran (which are many), but rather the status such threats have, and the reaction to those threats by acolytes of the United States such as Australia. The ABC article cited Foreign Minister Julie Bishop who emphasized “diplomatic efforts to bring Iran to heel.” “Australia,” she said, “is urging Iran to be a force for peace and stability in the region.” Quite where and how this “urging” is being done is unclear, and prima facie improbable given the relations between the two nations.
Prime Minister Turnbull’s response was quoted in The Guardian on 27 July 2018, saying he has “no reason” to believe Donald Trump is preparing to bomb Iran’s nuclear capability imminently, despite reports to the contrary. He dismissed those reports as “speculation.”As is almost invariably the case with the Australian media reports, the political response is treated as definitive, with little or no attempt to critically analyse what is said, or to put the reported remarks in any sort of context.Bishop is quoted for example, as urging efforts “to bring Iran to heel.” What is it that Iran is doing that would require such a goal? The commonly quoted charges against Iran are its involvement in Syria; its alleged help to the Houthis in Yemen; and being a ‘State sponsor of terrorism.’Iran is certainly an active player in both Iraq and Syria. The crucial difference however is that its forces are operating in both countries at the invitation of the respective sovereign governments. In the Syrian case, it was the intervention of Russian, Hezbollah and Iranian forces that have led to the virtual elimination of the various terrorist groups. The main sponsors of those terrorist groups, financially, politically and through the supply of armaments and other equipment are Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel.This is never discussed in the Australian media, and neither is the fact that the United States and its “allies” including Australia, are in Syria against the express wishes of the legitimate Syrian government, and contrary to international law.If Bishop is holding an alternative view of international law, then she should release the legal advice upon which it is presumably based that she received on the subject in 2014, instead of blocking Freedom of Information requests for a copy of that legal opinion.Is Iran a state sponsor of terrorism? It is a charge frequently leveled by Bishop and her ilk, but actual evidence of that, at least over the past 10 years, is conspicuous by its absence.Rather more to the point, who are the actual sponsors of terror in the Middle East and indeed elsewhere in the world? NATO produced at least one definition of terrorism in 2014:”The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence against individuals or property in an attempt to intimidate governments or societies to achieve political, religious or ideological objectives.”Attempts to define state terrorism are largely unnecessary as the relevant principles are codified in multiple international conventions and most particularly in the United Nations Charter. Article 2(4) requires all member states to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State……When one applies those two principles, it is clear that Iran is not the greatest violator of international law in the threat of or use of violence, if at all. That dubious distinction applies to United States by a very wide margin, as has been documented in numerous books and articles.The United States does not deny it’s multiple interventions in the affairs of other nations. Rather, it justifies it in terms of its self appointed role as the “exceptional nation.” It is only exceptional in the sense that ordinary principles of international law are not considered binding. Trump’s threats therefore, do not constitute a change of policy by the United States, but rather a variation in the means of delivery.Again, the Australian media and politicians are silent on this. It is admittedly difficult to criticize those to whom one is “joined at the hip.” A more realistic stance would be to recognise that the United States does not have “allies.” Rather, there are colonies, subject states, tributaries and acolytes, to be used and abused is the dictates of US foreign policy require.Pine Gap and the other US military bases in Australia precisely assist Australia to fulfill this role. In the event of an actual shooting war between the United States and Russia and/or China, the vastly superior military technology of those latter two countries would rapidly eliminate the United States as a serious fighting force. Australia would be doing very well to escape being collateral damage, although present foreign and defence policies make that outcome rather remote.The aforementioned ABC article also quotes United States secretary of defence James Mattis accusing Iran of malfeasance “down in Yemen.” That should have been a golden opportunity for Bishop to make an independent effective response. Yemen is on the verge of a human catastrophe of enormous proportions. This has been brought about by the illegal war being waged on that country by Saudi Arabia.The principal arms suppliers of Saudi Arabia are the United States and the United Kingdom, both of whom bear a significant degree of responsibility for the ongoing disaster befalling the Yemeni population. One would search in vain for any word of criticism from the Australian government about the actions of the Saudis or their suppliers.In addition to aerial bombardment, Saudi Arabia has also blocked sea and land access to Yemen, preventing the supply of food, medicine and other essential supplies. This is a war crime. Again, there is total silence from the Australian government.If Yemen could defend itself it would. Iran is one of the few countries actually trying to assist, which it is entitled to do under international law. Bishop however, does not like the idea of countries having the means of self-defence when they are not countries favoured by Australia. The right to self-defence is something guaranteed under article 51 of the United Nations Charter. Ironically, article 51 was invoked (wrongly) by Bishop when she tried to justify the September 2015 decision to intervene in the Syrian war.Bishop expressed concern about Iran’s “ballistic missile program and we talked (at AUSMIN) about ways of constructively engaging with Iran to prevent the development of that program.”International law is obviously an unknown quantity for Ms Bishop, as countries are perfectly entitled to have ballistic missile programs for their own defence. It was also a right acknowledged in the JCPOA signed by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany and the European Union, and unanimously endorsed by the UN Security Council. It was the United States that unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA (as it has done from multiple other international agreements) and who is imposing further sanctions on Iran (also in breach of international law). By seeking to “prevent the development of that program” Bishop is effectively denying Iran the right to self-defence.Both overtly and covertly, the United States has sought ‘regime change’ in Iran. They succeeded in the unlawful overthrow of the Mossadegh Government in 1953, and ever since the 1979 Islamic revolution have sought a repeat performance. National security adviser John Bolton recently declared regime change a goal to be achieved by 2019. Again the Australian government is completely silent on this outrageous declaration of interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.Instead of being an echo chamber for United States aggression and constant breaches of international law, Australia’s national interests would be better served by actually pursuing policies consistent with the “rules based international order” Bishop and Turnbull are so fond of parroting but completely ignoring.
Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He may be contacted at email@example.com