Nuclear powers once shared their technology openly – how Iran’s programme fell on the wrong side of history



Iran’s nuclear deal is hanging in the balance.
By Stuart Miles/Shutterstock

Joseph O’Mahoney, University of Reading

As tensions remain at fever pitch between Tehran and Washington, Iran continues to breach limits agreed in the 2015 Iran deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Since Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in May 2018, its future has become more and more uncertain.

Iran has enriched uranium beyond the level agreed in the deal. A UN report published in late September confirmed reports that the Iranian nuclear agency had begun operating more advanced centrifuges, the machines used to enrich uranium.

The Western media report these events by relating them to the materials needed for a nuclear weapon. Yet Iran insists that it “will never pursue a nuclear weapon” and that all of its activities are necessary for civilian nuclear power.

The difference between peaceful civilian nuclear energy programmes and the military production of nuclear weapons seems an obvious distinction. And yet, there have been major shifts in the policy regarding this line since explosive nuclear fission was first achieved in the US in 1945. These are partly rooted in a simple and relatively uncontested principle, that there is there is no strict technical difference between the fissile material used in a civilian energy nuclear reactor and that used in a nuclear weapon.

The same technology is used to enrich uranium for either nuclear power or nuclear weapons. This principle has been implemented in a variety of ways throughout the nuclear age.

Post-war restrictions

After World War II, the US initially restricted access to “all data concerning the manufacture or use of atomic weapons, the production of fissionable material, or the use of fissionable material in the production of power” in the Atomic Energy Act of 1946.

This meant strict restrictions were put in place on exchanging information on nuclear technology even between the US and the UK, otherwise close allies. The policy was based on that principle that there was little practical difference between the knowledge necessary to build nuclear reactors and that needed to produce “atomic” weapons, such as those the Americans dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

US President Harry Truman strongly believed that by restricting access to its information about all nuclear technology, the US could maintain a technical barrier to the production of nuclear weapons elsewhere in the world. He was so convinced of this, that he defied the scientific consensus that the Soviet Union tested a bomb in 1949, saying:

I am not convinced the Russians have achieved the know-how to put the complicated mechanism together to make an A-Bomb work, I am not convinced they have the bomb.

However, the Soviet Union had indeed tested a device, albeit with the help of some technical espionage. Then, despite the restrictions on information sharing, the UK tested a weapon in 1952. By the end of 1953, the Soviet Union had followed the US in successfully exploding a thermonuclear weapon.

Atoms for Peace

The initial hopes for a US technical monopoly were dashed. Reversing previous policy, US President Dwight Eisenhower told the UN in 1953 that “the dread secret and the fearful engines of atomic might are not ours alone”. As part of the Atoms for Peace programme, the US spearheaded the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency to help apply atomic energy to other areas of life such as agriculture and medicine, as well as the production of energy.

Over the next 20 years, much previously secret information and technology was shared around the world. For example, the US provided research reactors and enriched uranium to a wide variety of countries including Iran. There was a general tone of optimism over the future of civilian nuclear energy.

This laissez-faire attitude towards the “peaceful uses” of nuclear technology was even enshrined in Article IV of the 1970 Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons treaty, which stated a “inalienable right” to “research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” and “the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy”.

The backlash

This distinction between the civilian and military uses of nuclear technology started to unravel after India exploded a nuclear device in May 1974. This device, supposedly nicknamed the Smiling Buddha, was technically developed outside of the agreements that India had with Canada, who supplied it with nuclear reactors, and the US, who supplied heavy water, needed to sustain a nuclear reaction in those reactors.

However, this outside nuclear assistance was crucial to the nuclear weapons programme. As Homi Sethna, chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission between 1972 and 1983, later wrote: “The initial (nuclear) cooperation agreement itself has been the bedrock on which our nuclear programme has been built.”

Despite India’s attempts to brand the test a “peaceful nuclear explosion”, it set off a flurry of concern within the US as well as in other supplier countries including the Soviet Union, UK, and Canada. The worry was that if India, not seen as a developed nation, could produce a nuclear explosion on the back of nominally civilian nuclear assistance, so could others. The worldwide energy crisis of the early 1970s had led many countries to pursue nuclear energy and the Indian example made the growing spread of nuclear technology appear an ominous and menacing development.

The tenor of the debate had changed. For example, in 1975 a deal was announced in which West Germany agreed to provide Brazil with a complete civilian nuclear fuel cycle, potentially including the abilities to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium. The New York Times called this “nuclear madness”.

A general reorientation in nuclear policy began. Since then, the nuclear story has generally been one of viewing civilian nuclear programmes as a pathway towards a military nuclear weapons capability. Restrictions on the transfer of and access to nuclear materials and technology have increased. For example, the US and other suppliers began to co-operate in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group to restrict access to nuclear technology, for example by not exporting the technology for producing plutonium or enriching uranium.

Yet, academic research shows that the technical capability to enrich uranium is within reach of nearly all states. Although civilian power programmes increase the technical capacity of a state to build nuclear weapons, they have important countervailing political effects that limit the odds of the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Despite this, public and media opinion seems tilted towards the view that the US or other supplier states can control the development of nuclear weapons through technical constraints. As such, it seems unlikely that the set of circumstances that produced the JCPOA in the first place – a deal built around restricting Iran’s nuclear capabilities – will happen again.The Conversation

Joseph O’Mahoney, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Reading

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Yes, the US-Australia alliance is important, but Scott Morrison needs to take a careful approach with Donald Trump



Donald Trump has rolled out the red carpet for Scott Morrison in the US as part of a charm offensive aimed at shoring up the Australia-US alliance.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Mark Beeson, University of Western Australia

One of the time-honoured tests of the diplomatic skills of any Australian prime minister has been dealing with the United States. We are frequently assured by the hard-headed realists who make and influence strategic policy that this is a relationship no PM can afford to mishandle.

Stuffing up is not an option. To judge by Scott Morrison’s lavish reception by the Trump administration, things really couldn’t be better.

But given our prime minister is dealing with someone who even some respected prominent former public officials from the US think is “seriously, frighteningly, dangerously unstable”, this could well be regarded as a modest triumph. It’s simply not controversial to suggest that Donald Trump is a highly unpredictable, erratic, inexperienced narcissist who has – to put it politely – an implausibly inflated sense of own abilities.

Remembering Australia’s interests while savouring foie gras

Under such circumstances, deciding whether the trip will be judged a success or failure is not a simple task, despite the Murdoch press predictably suggesting that an ever close strategic alliance is the only benchmark that matters.

And why wouldn’t they? After all, Lachlan Murdoch was one of the high profile guests, along with other business luminaries, adding to the theatrical quality of much of the visit.

The State Dinner for Scott Morrison was just the second hosted by the Trump administration.
Erik S. Lesser/EPA

One assumes that behind closed doors many issues of substance were discussed, even though this is a president who famously doesn’t do detail or nuance.

To judge by some of Trump’s public utterances, however, this can’t have been an easy task. The fact that the president casually mentioned that China, our largest trading partner, is a “threat to the world”, or hinting that the use of nuclear weapons remains an option when dealing with the likes of Afghanistan or Iran, might have given even the most enthusiastic alliance supporter pause for thought.




Read more:
As Scott Morrison heads to Washington, the US-Australia alliance is unlikely to change


While some influential Americans may think that destabilising China and undermining President Xi Jinping is not a bad outcome, things are a little more complicated for Australia.

Morrison’s White House visit will confirm many of China’s equally hawkish strategists in their view of Australia as a slavishly predictable lackey of the US.

Indeed, Beijing reminded us of just how important our bilateral relationship with China has become in a recent op-ed in the state mouthpiece, the Global Times. After Arthur Culvahouse, the US ambassador to Canberra, called on Australia to stand up more to China, the Global Times warned:

Morrison would be better off if he kept Australia’s national interests in mind while savouring foie gras at the White House.

When it comes to China, any prime minister would face the same difficult task reconciling Australia’s strategic and economic interests.




Read more:
Avoiding the China trap: how Australia and the US can remain close despite the threat


Diluting our economic dependence on China won’t be easy or quick. Beijing can signal its displeasure with Australia in the meantime by holding up imports or even discouraging Chinese students from studying in an “unfriendly” country.

To be fair, Morrison has done his best not to gratuitously upset the Chinese leadership at a time when a rising tide of nationalism in China is defining its foreign policy. Indeed, the PM won rare praise in China for his support of embattled Liberal Gladys Liu.

But actions, as they say, speak louder than words in any language, which is what gives this trip such symbolism.

Rising tensions in the Middle East

Such concerns may not be uppermost in Morrison’s mind as the Americans turn on the charm for one its more reliable allies. As he frequently points out,

Australia is a reliable alliance partner — we pull our weight and we get things done.

That these things include fighting endless wars in the Middle East that have little immediate strategic relevance to Australia is less frequently mentioned.

Given that we may be about to embark on yet another entirely unnecessary, unpredictable adventure that may result in a conflict with Iran, this is not an inconsequential concern.

Morrison has been careful not to make an open-ended commitment to the US-led mission to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, but we know only too well how these sorts of modest contributions to shoring up the alliance can end.




Read more:
Australia to send naval and air assistance to protect Middle East sea lanes: Morrison


Does anyone really think the Vietnam War or the invasion of Iraq were really good ideas in retrospect? And yet, Australia’s policymakers thought they were acting unambiguously in the national interest at the time of those conflicts, too, and they had little option other than to support our great and powerful friend.

Not much has changed in that regard, despite the disastrous consequences of these wars.

Being a junior partner in an alliance is tricky at the best of times. These are plainly not the best of times. The Trump administration’s disdain for the very order the US did so much to construct is one of the major reasons why, as even conservative commentators acknowledge.

In such circumstances, sensible Australian policy might involve more moderation and less ingratiation.The Conversation

Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How likely is conflict between the US and Iran?



This week’s attack on Saudi oil facilities appears to be the latest effort by Iran to escalate tensions in the Persian Gulf to push back on the US ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions campaign.
Pavel Golovkin/EPA

Ben Rich, Curtin University

This week’s strikes on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil processing facilities in Saudi Arabia represent the latest in a pattern of actions by the Islamic Republic of Iran to escalate tensions in the Persian Gulf.

Unlike previous incidents, the impact of this attack has not just been felt locally. With half of Saudi oil output halted – around 6% of total world production – global fuel oil prices have spiked. The markets are spooked.

Direct culpability for the attack remains unclear. While Yemeni Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility, other sources and evidence have pointed to an Iraqi source, potentially the Hashd al-Shaabi militia.

Some sources inside the US government have also outright accused Iran itself. This seems unlikely, though, given Iran’s penchant for proxy activity and plausible deniability.




Read more:
As pressure on Iran mounts, there is little room for quiet diplomacy to free detained Australians


Regardless of who physically pressed the launch button, however, it is almost certain that Tehran was the primary enabler of the strike. The state has a long history of supplying proxy non-state actors with the equipment, intelligence and training necessary to execute such attacks.

Indeed, in the context of the past few months, the attack appears to be the latest in a series of efforts by Iran to escalate tensions and insecurity in the Persian Gulf to push back on the US “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign.

A strategy of tension

Since early this year, Iran has committed itself to a strategy of destabilisation in and around the Arabian Peninsula.

The reasons have been myriad, but primarily revolve around the fallout from the US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement. This has left Iran diplomatically isolated, economically strained and feeling betrayed by the wider international community.

Seeing few good options, the Iranian leadership has decided to promote chaos and instability to inflict what pain it can on global energy markets. The hope is this will add urgency to the negotiations with world powers and force them to seek a political solution to the economic and security standoff that provides an acceptable exit for Iran.

According to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Islamic Republic has been involved in nearly 100 incidents over the past few months targeting oil, transport and security infrastructure and equipment.

These have included attacks and seizures of several oil tankers in the gulf, as well as strikes on airports, military bases, diplomatic compounds and now oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.

Iran seized the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero in July.
Hasan Shirvani/EPA

While Iran has been directly implicated in a few of these cases, the majority appear to have been undertaken by allied non-state actors in Iraq and Yemen.

If one considers Iran’s historical patronage of such organisations, this should come as no surprise. Since the revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic has actively cultivated relationships with such groups as a key part of its foreign policy, most famously with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Such close alliances have permitted Tehran to project its influence into areas it otherwise would have little access to. They also grant a degree of plausible deniability when it comes to radical actions like those witnessed this week.

This can make it diplomatically more difficult for affected countries to assign blame and, more importantly, react to such provocations.




Read more:
Infographic: what is the conflict between the US and Iran about and how is Australia now involved?


In the case of the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities, the Iranian leadership has staunchly rejected any responsibility, framing the attack as Houthi revenge against Saudi war crimes.

What was notable in these attacks was their relative bloodlessness and precision. They were primarily designed to threaten and inflict economic harm and uncertainty, rather than kill and maim.

This, combined with a general commitment to employing militant proxies, highlights the Iranian desire to create enough tension to achieve political outcomes, while avoiding crossing a threshold that would lead to dramatic military blowback from the US and its allies.

This is a fine line to walk at the best of times.

Gambling on inaction

Tehran’s brinkmanship rests on an assumption that calibrated provocations will not elicit serious reprisals.

Iran’s security elites have concluded that the Trump administration has little stomach for serious foreign military adventurism. A quick examination of the recent historical record shows that while the current American leadership has demonstrated an unprecedented amount of security policy bark – particularly on Twitter – this has not coincided with a similar level of bite.

Trump’s initial threats of “fire and fury” towards North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in 2017 were quickly shown to be pure bluster.

Indeed, such bellicose posturing quickly gave way to unprecedented dialogue between the two countries. This culminated in an ongoing series of no-strings-attached summits in which the US president bizarrely prostrated himself before the Hermit Kingdom’s autocrat for little clear gain.




Read more:
Iran’s leader is losing his grasp on power. Does this mean diplomacy is doomed?


More evidence of American reticence can be found in Syria. Trump loudly and continually warned against Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.

But, when push came to shove, punitive measures by the US proved little more than anaemic symbolism and posed no serious threat to the regime’s survival.

Just a few months ago, Trump also aborted several military strikes on Iranian military targets after the downing of a US drone. It was another indication Washington has little appetite for open conflict.

Internally, Trump has also clashed heavily with several of the hawks in his administration. In some cases, he has purged them when their views clashed too heavily with his own risk aversion.

The most notable recent example was the humiliating dismissal of his national security adviser, John Bolton, one of the 2003 Iraq war’s chief architects and a staunch advocate of regime change in Iran.

Trump has backed away from confrontation with Iran in recent days, saying he wants to wait for the result of an investigation into the Saudi strike.
Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Rolling the dice

The Saudi incident this week represents an undeniable and significant escalation by Iran in its ongoing campaign of tension in the region. The attack has seriously raised the stakes and potential for a conflict between both regional and global players.

But looking at the Trump administration’s recent history, Iranian foreign policymakers are assuming their actions will not spark a dramatic escalation.

In theory, this is a reasonable conclusion, supported by evidence. But security dilemmas like this are characterised by an incredibly complex intersection of competing interests, understandings and short time frames. This often leads to tragic and unpredictable outcomes for those involved.

One has only to look at the ramifications of a previous US intervention against Iranian disruption in the gulf, Operation Praying Mantis in 1988, for evidence of the potential for a rapid escalation to large-scale military exchange.The Conversation

Ben Rich, Lecturer in International Relations and Security Studies, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As pressure on Iran mounts, there is little room for quiet diplomacy to free detained Australians


Former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has offered to help free three detained Australians in Iran, but the attacks on Saudi oil facilities have made the situation vastly more complicated.
Stringer/EPA

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Australia’s attempts to secure the release of an Australian national and two with joint UK-Australian citizenship from an Iranian prison have become vastly more complicated following the brazen attacks on Saudi oil facilities over the weekend.

Room for quiet diplomacy has been narrowed while the world comes to terms with a strike at the very heart of global energy security.

At this stage, it is not clear to what extent facilities at Saudi Arabia’s main refinery have been crippled, but initial reports indicate it could be weeks and possibly months before it is brought back into full production.




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As Australia looks to join a coalition in Iran, the risks are many


Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq refinery processes about half the kingdom’s oil production. According to initial reports, the attack reduced throughput by 5 million barrels a day, or nearly 5% of global production.

‘Hostage diplomacy’

Australia’s former foreign minister, Julie Bishop, has offered to intervene with the Iranian authorities in an attempt to secure the release of the Australian nationals being held in Tehran.

These include Mark Firkin and his UK-Australian girlfriend, Jolie King. The two were arrested earlier this year for the unauthorised flying of a drone near a military facility on the outskirts of Tehran. They have not been charged.

More serious at this stage, however, is the case of Melbourne University Middle East specialist and joint UK-Australia citizen Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who was detained in October 2018. She has been sentenced to 10 years in jail.

University of Melbourne Middle East specialist Kylie Moore-Gilbert.
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Handout/EPA

Iran has not publicly announced details of charges against her.

The cases of Moore-Gilbert, Firkin and King have, inevitably and unhelpfully, become enmeshed in wider geopolitical tensions in which Iran is fighting back against a US sanctions regime that seeks to cripple its economy.

Iran is being accused of “hostage diplomacy” by resorting to the incarceration of foreign nationals at a time when sanctions are rendering enormous damage to its oil-exporting economy.

This is the background to the diplomatic challenges facing the Australian government in its efforts to free its citizens. These are, by any standards, unpromising circumstances.

While Australian officials insist Canberra’s decision to commit to a US-led mission to protect ships travelling through the Strait of Hormuz is unconnected to the detention of its citizens, Tehran has a history of using individuals ruthlessly as bargaining chips in a wider geopolitical game.




Read more:
Infographic: what is the conflict between the US and Iran about and how is Australia now involved?


Hostage taking, or “hostage diplomacy”, has a lengthy tail in the history of the Islamic Republic going back to the November 4, 1979, seizure of the American embassy in Tehran and a siege that ensued for 444 days. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for more than a year.

More recently, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian was held in Iran for 544 days before being released with three other Iranian-Americans as part of a prisoner swap in 2016, just before economic sanctions on Iran were lifted under the terms of the nuclear deal.

In recent weeks, Iran has also detained a UK-flagged oil carrier in the Persian Gulf. The Stena Impero remains in Iranian custody, but members of its crew have been let go.

US blaming Iran for Saudi attack

All this was contributing to heightened tensions in the gulf before this weekend’s attacks at the very heart of Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wasted little time in blaming Iran for the attacks. Although Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for the strikes using drones, Washington is investigating whether cruise missiles were the weapon of choice, fired from either Iraq or Iran itself. A Trump administration official told Reuters,

There’s no doubt that Iran is responsible for this. No matter how you slice it, there’s no escaping it. There’s no other candidate.

Tehran has denied Washington’s accusations.

Saudi Arabia and its Yemeni government allies have been engaged in a vicious conflict with Houthi rebels since 2015. Thousands have been killed, and many more displaced, in what is regarded as the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world today.




Read more:
Yemen: a calamity at the end of the Arabian peninsula


Iran is supporting the Houthis and is widely accused of fuelling the Yemen conflict to weaken Saudi Arabia.

In other words, the gulf and its environs are primed for worsening conflict unless the US and Iran can reach an accommodation that would enable an easing of sanctions.

President Donald Trump has been angling for a face-to-face meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly to address ways in which tensions could be eased.

Attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities – and, thus, the global economy – hardly provides a favourable environment for discussions that might, or might not, take place.

Iran has set as a precondition for talks a relaxation of sanctions.

Satellite image of smoke from fires at two major oil installations in Saudi Arabia after the attack over the weekend.
NASA Worldview Handout/EPA

Australia’s limited leverage

Meanwhile, the Australian government finds itself in a situation where it has limited leverage. Trade between Australia and Iran is negligible and holds little promise as long as sanctions remain in place. Canberra’s decision to join a US-led mission in the Middle East means that it is now identified with Washington’s “maximum pressure” approach.

Australia is one of three countries to have signed up to the US initiative. The others are Britain and Bahrain.

In all of this there is another complicating factor, and one that has been little-reported. Tehran was displeased when Australia arrested an Iranian citizen at the request of the US for breaching sanctions.

Iran made repeated representations to secure the release of Negar Ghodskani after her arrest in 2017. She has pleaded guilty to conspiring to facilitate the illegal export of technology from the US and faces a hefty fine and jail time.

This is a tangled web, and hardly likely to become less so.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Strait of Hormuz is the most important oil choke point in the world. Use our interactive map to explore it



Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Wes Mountain, The Conversation

After months of increasing tension between Iran and the US, on Tuesday the Morrison government committed a warship, surveillance aircraft and about 200 troops to a US-led convoy to protect ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz.

But why is this small passage – just 39km across at its narrowest point – so important to the international oil trade and why has it become the stage for the growing conflict between the two powers?

And, more to the point, where is it?

Click through our interactive below to get everything you need to know about the Strait and the events that led to Australia’s involvement.


The Conversation


Wes Mountain, Multimedia Editor, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s latest military commitment should spark assessment of how well we use our defence forces


John Blaxland, Australian National University

Just when we thought Australia was getting serious about shifting priorities away from the Middle East to its own neighbourhood, the prime minister has announced another Middle East step up. Australia has committed a warship, surveillance aircraft and defence personnel to help keep the Strait of Hormuz open for shipping.




Read more:
Infographic: what is the conflict between the US and Iran about and how is Australia now involved?


So what is going on?

As it happens, the commitment to the Middle East is essentially a rebadging of a routine commitment of Australian Defence Force (ADF) assets. Australia has about 2,250 military personnel deployed on operations. These include:

  • Operations Accordion and Manitou in the Middle East (740 people)
  • Operation Aslan in support of UN peacekeeping in Sudan (25)
  • Operation Mazurka established in Egypt after the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace accord (27)
  • Operation Okra in support of counter-ISIL operations in and around Iraq (450)
  • Operation Paladin, with small contingents on rotation for over 70 years with the UN Truce Supervision Organisation in Israel/Lebanon (12)
  • Operation Augury, providing training and related support for the armed forces in the Philippines after the siege of Marawi in Mindanao (100)
  • Operation Resolute, involving border protection-related tasks (600).

Australia has a defence force of about 60,000 full-time uniformed personnel and 25,000 in the reserves. So this commitment of about 2,250 personnel is sustainable, for now, as long as security challenges closer to home don’t rapidly escalate.

This also means the operational tempo of border protection or any of the other ongoing operations is not expected to decrease as a result of this commitment. Some of these elements, notably Operation Manitou, will perform more than one role.

Operation Manitou is the Royal Australian Navy commitment of one warship to the Combined Maritime Forces (with 32 participant nations) that operate in and around the Persian Gulf. Australian warships have been doing this on rotation for the best part of 30 years.

Similarly, the Royal Australian Air Force P8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft have been operating intermittently out of the Persian Gulf for years. The extra defence planning personnel announced likely will be drawn from a pool already assigned to support Australian operations, notably attached to US military headquarters semi-permanently based in and around the Gulf.

So why make all the fuss with the announcement?

It appears pressure from the United States as well as Britain has convinced the government of the importance of making a contribution.

To be fair, it is not a token contribution. The warship and P8 are capable platforms that have made a tangible difference in the past in countering piracy, smuggling and related security concerns in the Persian Gulf. And, as the prime minister reminded us, the Gulf is the source of much of Australia’s oil.

So, while not a token contribution in one sense, it is not a significantly onerous addition to what Australia has been contributing there for a long time.

However, in international diplomacy, words matter, and small contributions can have significant effects. No doubt, Australian policymakers were mindful of making a contribution that would satisfy the US after declining Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s suggestion to base intermediate-range and potentially nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in Australia.

While Australia can sustain this new commitment without a significant surge, there is growing recognition that committing forces to operations in the Middle East detracts from the ability of the ADF to focus on high-priority areas closer to home.

The 2016 Defence White Paper referred to three strategic defence interests. These are: a secure and resilient Australia; a secure nearer region (including the Pacific and Southeast Asia) and a stable Indo-Pacific region; and a rules-based global order.

But China’s increasing illiberalism and regional assertiveness across Southeast Asia and into the South Pacific have generated considerable unease over spreading ourselves too thinly.




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As Australia’s soft power in the Pacific fades, China’s voice gets louder


Consequently, a consensus is growing among security and defence experts that we need to double down on our investment in defence and security capabilities.

Reports along similar lines have been published recently by the United States Studies Centre and my own Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, among others.

My colleague Brendan Taylor warns of the volatility of the four flashpoints in Asia: the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea, Taiwan and the South China Sea. That was before the Hong Kong protests and the news of militarised ports in Cambodia.

Another colleague, Hugh White, has called for spending up to 3.5% of GDP on defence to boost the air and naval forces.

Senator Jim Molan has argued for a fresh national security strategy.

My own geostrategic SWOT analysis for Australia points to the need for a more holistic consideration of issues related to looming environmental catastrophe (affecting biodiversity and societal sustainability), a spectrum of governance challenges (such as cyberterrorism and organised crime) and great power contestation.

That paper calls for, among other things, a national institute for net assessment to weigh up how best to respond.

In essence, the prime minister has deftly handled the call for a commitment in solidarity with the United States. But the Strait of Hormuz issue is only one of many looming security challenges. Its emergence at the top of the news pile points to the need for a significant and far-reaching re-examination of our defence and security posture and priorities.The Conversation

John Blaxland, Professor, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Infographic: what is the conflict between the US and Iran about and how is Australia now involved?



Australia will commit a frigate, an aircraft and some headquarters staff to a US-led operation in the Strait of Hormuz.
AAP/Marc Tewksbury

Natalie Klein, UNSW

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed that Australia will lend military support to protect shipping in the Middle East.

The commitment has been long expected, with Australia sending a frigate, an aircraft and some headquarters staff as part of a US-led coalition in the Strait of Hormuz, amid deepening tensions between the US and Iran.

So what is this conflict about, what is Australia’s involvement, and what are the risks associated with it?

What is the Strait of Hormuz?

The Strait of Hormuz is a narrow body of ocean connecting the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Its width varies, but at its narrowest is 39km. It is the main passage for transporting oil from the Middle East out into the Indian Ocean and beyond; a fifth of the world’s oil is shipped through this strait. This includes 15-16% of crude oil and 25-30% of refined oil that is destined for Australia.

Iran and Oman border the Strait of Hormuz. As the littoral states, they have sovereignty over the waters in the Strait of Hormuz, but that sovereignty is subject to navigational rights enjoyed by all states. Ships from all countries have the right to move continuously and expeditiously through these waters without interference from either of the coastal states.

What is the conflict between Iran and the US about?

The primary concern in relation to the Strait of Hormuz at the moment is interference with commercial shipping. The United States has accused Iran of attacks against tankers and has destroyed an Iranian drone.

In recent weeks, Iran has seized the Stena Impero, a British-flagged commercial tanker, as well as a US drone. It also boarded but released a Liberian-flagged, British-owned vessel. These actions have heightened concerns about navigational rights through the strait and the consequences for global oil supply.

This is all against a backdrop of heightened tension between Iran and the United States, resulting from American sanctions against Iran and its abandonment of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. It is the latest rift in a relationship that has been fraught for decades, punctuated by events like Iran taking over the US embassy and holding hostages in 1979, the United States backing Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and Iran’s development of a nuclear program in the 1990s.

Shipping has previously been threatened within the Persian Gulf and along the Strait of Hormuz, especially during the Iran-Iraq war. This conflict was also known as the Tanker War because of the threats to commercial ships transporting oil out of the Gulf. It resulted in the United States and other neutral states providing naval escorts and conducting convoys to protect shipping.

What is Australia’s involvement?

Australia has announced it will be joining an “International Maritime Security Construct” that is focused on ensuring the freedom of shipping lanes and commercial navigation.

This international presence is intended to respond to incidents and threats as they occur during passage through the strait. The prime minister has announced that Australia’s involvement is limited in terms of time and resources and emphasised the importance of de-escalation.

A legal difficulty for Australia is that this sort of convoy relies on a doctrine that is associated with the law of naval warfare, and so would usually only apply if there is an armed conflict between states. Australia is instead maintaining the view that its warships are also exercising their navigational rights through the Strait of Hormuz.

The new mission is cast as an enhancement of previous contributions to counter-terrorism and counter-piracy operations. However, these operations have been directed at non-state actors, rather than the naval forces of another country. Iran may claim that their presence constitutes an unlawful threat of the use of force.

The previous UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, characterised Iran’s actions as “state piracy”. He advocated for “European-led maritime protection mission(s) to support safe passage of both crew and cargo”.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson instead decided to join the US-led mission. In joining this effort, Australia has emphasised the importance of its multilateral nature. This matters when it is recalled that the oil tankers concerned are typically flagged to a wide variety of states, are owned by nationals from other states, might be chartered by companies from different states and are frequently crewed by nationals from diverse states.

As a result, far more countries than just Iran, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have stakes in these issues.

How does it affect the global oil trade?

The prospect of oil tankers being seized in the Strait of Hormuz will likely increase the insurance premiums on shipping. In addition to seizing ships, Iran has threatened to close the strait.

Concerns also exist that Iranian military forces might hinder passage, or might go so far as mining the strait. Any of these scenarios poses a risk to global oil supply and even the prospect of these actions causes a jump in crude oil prices.

What might happen from here?

Ultimately, Iran shares an interest with the United States and other countries in maintaining navigational rights for commercial shipping. So much is evident in Iran’s own response to the British Royal Navy seizing one of its vessels off Gibraltar.

Given that over 90% of the world’s traded goods are carried by ship, every country has a strong reciprocal interest in ensuring freedom of navigation. Iran is using one of the main political tools it has at its disposal to exert pressure in response to current US policies.

Preventing escalation should be the prime concern of all actors and would be the most mutually beneficial outcome.The Conversation

Natalie Klein, Professor, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia to send naval and air assistance to protect Middle East sea lanes: Morrison


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Australia will commit a frigate, an aircraft and some headquarters staff to an American-led freedom of navigation operation in the Middle East.

Scott Morrison, announcing the long-expected commitment at a Canberra news conference on Wednesday, stressed this was an international mission, but so far the United Kingdom is the only other country to have signed up.

Under questioning, the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, said the operation would be United States-led. But Campbell avoided spelling out in detail the rules of engagement in the event of being involved in an incident, other than referring to legal obligations.

Iran has seized ships in recent months, amid escalating tensions.

This week, an Iranian oil tanker was released after being detained by the British overseas territory of Gibraltar on suspicion of taking oil to Syria. The US tried unsuccessfully to have Gibraltar extend the vessel’s detention.

Morrison said Australia had made very clear both to the US and the UK “that we are here as part of a multinational effort”.

“This is a modest, meaningful and time-limited contribution …to this international effort to ensure we maintain free-flow of commerce and of navigation,” he said.

“Australia will defend our interests, wherever they may be under threat, we will always work closely with our international allies and partners.”




Read more:
Morrison looking at details for commitment to protect shipping


Morrison emphasised that the safety of shipping lanes was vital to Australia’s economic interests.

The government had been concerned over incidents in the Strait of Hormuz, he said. “30% of refined oil destined for Australia travels through the Strait. It is a threat to our economy.”

The Australian contribution will be

  • a P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft for one month before the end of 2019;

  • an Australian frigate in January 2020 for six months; and

  • ADF personnel to the International Maritime Security Construct headquarters in Bahrain.

One complication for Australia in finalising the commitment was the fact there was no Australian frigate in the area, with the next deployment not due until January.

Australian ships participate in counter-piracy and counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East.

The Americans were very pressing in their request to Australia to join the force, including in public statements during the recent AUSMIN talks.

Morrison has emphasised Australia wants to see the de-escalation of tensions in the area and separates its commitment to the freedom of navigation operation from America’s other activities in relation to Iran.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As Australia looks to join a coalition in Iran, the risks are many



The Morrison government must have a plan for Australia’s involvement if the “peacekeeping” descends into hostility.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has indicated Australia will join a multinational peacekeeping force to protect freedom of navigation in the Gulf, but at this stage he has not indicated what form Australian participation might take.

Speaking to reporters after a conversation overnight with newly-installed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Morrison said Australia was “looking very carefully at an international, multinational initiative” to provide a peacekeeping role.

But given recent experience of Australia too hastily joining an American-led Iraq invasion of 2003, with disastrous consequences, Morrison and his advisers need to ask some hard questions – and set clear limits on any Australian involvement.

It is not clear the extent to which the prime minister and his team have interrogated the risks involved before acceding to an American request for some form of military contribution to policing one of the world’s most strategically important waterways.




Read more:
Iran and US refusing to budge as tit-for-tat ship seizures in Middle East raise the temperature


Nor is it clear what form Australian engagement might take to deter Iran’s threats to tanker traffic. This includes its seizing of a British-flagged vessel.

Options include sending a warship or warships to join peacekeeping patrols under American command, or stationing surveillance aircraft in the region to monitor ship movements through the Strait of Hormuz.

The operative words in the above paragraph are “American command”.

Any peacekeeping mission might be presented as a multinational exercise, but in effect the preponderance of American power, including an aircraft carrier battle group, means Americans would be in command.

In the Iraq invasion of 2003, Australians operated under broad American oversight, as did the British at considerable cost to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s reputation.

This is not an argument against Australian involvement in protecting a vital sea lane through which passes one-third of the world’s seaborne tradeable oil every day. Rather, it is to make the case for extreme caution.

Morrison and his team need to ask themselves whether there is a risk of being drawn into an American exercise in regime change in Iran. What might be the limits on Australia’s involvement should hostilities broke out in the Gulf?

What would be the rules of engagement? What might be an exit strategy?

What, for example, would be Australia’s response if a warship involved in a peacekeeping exercise was damaged – or sunk – in a hostile act? This includes hitting a mine bobbing in the Gulf waterway, or a limpet mine stuck on the side of a vessel.

We have seen this before in 1984, when traffic in the Gulf was brought to a standstill by Iran floating mines into busy sea lanes.

What would Australia’s response be in the case of a surveillance aircraft or drone being shot down if it strayed into Iranian airspace?

In other words, there are multiple possibilities of conflict escalating given the concentration of firepower that is planned for the Gulf.

The aim of any international mission to which Australia attaches itself should be to de-escalate tensions in the world’s most volatile region. A military presence cannot – and should not – be detached from a political imperative.

That imperative is to draw Iran back into discussions on a revitalised Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Under this 2015 plan, the Iranians agreed to freeze their nuclear program under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision.

Iran was complying with that agreement before US President Donald Trump recklessly abrogated it in 2018 and re-applied sanctions. These have brought Iran’s economy to its knees.




Read more:
US-Iran conflict escalates again, raising the threat of another war in the Middle East


Trump’s abandonment of the JCPOA against the wishes of the other signatories, including the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, was as inexplicable as it was damaging.

Now, the world is facing a crisis in the Gulf of American making, and one that Washington is asking its allies to police.

Morrison has been equivocal about the JCPOA. He would be well advised to reiterate Australia’s backing for the agreement as a signal to the Americans that Australia stands with its allies in its support of international obligations.

These cannot – and should not – be ripped up at the whim of a president who seems to have been motivated largely by a desire to undo the useful work of his predecessor.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this has been an act of self-harm to American interests and those of its allies. It is a crisis that need not have occurred.

Viewed from the distance of Canberra, Morrison and his advisers might have difficulty fully comprehending the risks involved in a potential escalation of tensions in the Gulf.

In a useful paper, the International Crisis Group warns of the dangers of an escalation of hostilities due to a mistake or accident in a highly charged environment.

As Iran Project Director Ali Vaez puts it:

Just as in Europe in 1914 a single incident has the potential of sparking a military confrontation that could, in turn, engulf the entire region.

What should be kept in mind in all of this is that it is not simply stresses in the Gulf itself that are threatening stability, but a host of other Middle East flashpoints. These include ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and heightened tensions between Iran and a Sunni majority led by Saudi Arabia.

Then there is the drumbeat on Capitol Hill. Hawkish Republican lawmakers agitate for pre-emptive strikes against Iran in the mistaken belief such an exercise would be clinical and short-lived.

Further destabilisation of the entire region would result, and possibly all-out war.

The ICG is urging America to redouble its efforts to establish a dialogue with Iran to bring about a resumption of negotiations on a revised JCPOA. This would require Washington making a down payment in good faith by easing sanctions on Iran’s oil exports.

It is not clear the Trump administration would be willing or able to make these concessions.

Morrison could do worse than argue the case for “redo” of the JCPOA when he is in Washington next month on a state visit.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.