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.




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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.




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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.

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Morrison looking at details for commitment to protect shipping


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison has flagged the government is working with the United States and Britain on details for an Australian role in helping safeguard shipping passages in the Middle East.

Morrison told a news conference in Townsville on Thursday he had spoken to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday night and “indicated to him that we were looking very carefully at our participation in this initiative”.

Morrison stressed it would be a multinational operation.

This is not a unilateral initiative by any one country, and it is about safe shipping lanes, it is about deescalating tensions and making sure that the current situation does not worsen.

He said the government had not “made any decisions on this yet. We want to be fully satisfied about the operational arrangements that are in place”. It was very early days and it would be a while before things came together.




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


In practice though, the government has obviously agreed in principle, subject to satisfactory arrangements being worked out. Its role is somewhat complicated, however, by the fact it does not have a ship in the region.

The US’s request for Australian assistance was discussed at the weekend AUSMIN talks.

Morrison said there were other countries which were in a similar position to Australia – “engaging before making any full decisions”.

He stressed the maritime issue “should be clearly divorced from the broader issues that relate to Iran and the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the nuclear deal that the US pulled out of last year].

“That’s a separate issue. This is about safe shipping lanes and ensuring that we can restore at least some stability to what is a very unstable part of the world at the moment,” Morrison said.

“There has been a very disturbing series of events that we’ve seen in the Straits of Hormuz, and freedom of navigation and safe shipping lanes is very important to the global economy and that is a matter that is as important in that part of the world as it is in many other parts of the world.”

China hits back at Liberal chair of security committee

The Chinese authorities have accused Liberal MP Andrew Hastie of “Cold-War mentality and ideological bias”, after he drew on the example of France’s “catastrophic” failure to comprehend the threat of a rising Nazi Germany in an article warning about the dangers from a rising China.

Hastie, chair of the powerful parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald:

The West once believed that economic liberalisation would naturally lead to democratisation in China. This was our Maginot Line. It would keep us safe, just as the French believed their series of steel and concrete forts would guard them against the German advance in 1940. But their thinking failed catastrophically. The French had failed to appreciate the evolution of mobile warfare. Like the French, Australia has failed to see how mobile our authoritarian neighbour has become.

Even worse, we ignore the role that ideology plays in China’s actions across the Indo-Pacific region. We keep using our own categories to understand its actions, such as its motivations for building ports and roads, rather than those used by the Chinese Communist Party.

The West has made this mistake before. Commentators once believed Stalin’s decisions were the rational actions of a realist great power.

Hastie referred to action Australia had taken such as foreign espionage legislation and more closely monitoring infrastructure.

But “right now our greatest vulnerability lies not in our infrastructure, but in our thinking. That intellectual failure makes us institutionally weak. If we don’t understand the challenge ahead for our civil society, in our parliaments, in our universities, in our private enterprises, in our charities — our little platoons — then choices will be made for us. Our sovereignty, our freedoms, will be diminished.”




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Australia depends less on Chinese trade than some might think


A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy said in a statement:

We strongly deplore the Australian federal MP Andrew Hastie’s rhetoric on “China threat” which lays bare his Cold-War mentality and ideological bias. It goes against the world trend of peace, cooperation and development. It is detrimental to China-Australian relations.

History has proven and will continue to prove that China’s peaceful development is an opportunity, not a threat to the world.

We urge certain Australian politicians to take off their “colored lens” and view China’s development path in an objective and rational way. They should make efforts to promote mutual trust between China and Australia, instead of doing the opposite.

Morrison played down the Hastie comments, noting he was a backbencher not a minister.

We will continue to work to have a cooperative arrangement with China. Of course, there is much to be gained from that relationship, particularly from the trade side, but let’s not forget that relationship is far broader than just the economic one.

But equally, our relationship with the United States is a very special one indeed and there is a deep connection on values and that’s of no surprise to anyone.

So we believe we can continue to manage these relationships together, but I don’t think anyone is in any way unaware of the challenges that present there.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.

Australia likely to tick off on US request to help protect shipping in Middle East



Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne, and Australian Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds at the AUSMIN talks in Sydney.
AAP/Rick Rycroft

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The federal government is expected soon to approve a commitment in response to the United States’ request for allies to help protect shipping as tensions with Iran remain high.

Speaking at a joint news conference after the AUSMIN talks, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds on Sunday said the government was giving the request “very serious consideration”.

Although Reynolds said no decision had yet been made, it would be highly unlikely the request would not receive a favourable answer.

Meanwhile, on Sunday it was reported that Iran state TV said the country’s naval forces had seized another foreign tanker and that seven sailors had been detained. The Iranians said the vessel, carrying 700,000 litres of fuel, was smuggling the fuel to Persian Gulf Arab states.

It is not clear what form Australian assistance would take.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously said, when talking about a possible request, “it’s not unheard of to have Australian frigates in that part of the world engaged in maritime operations”.

However Australia does not currently have a ship in the region. An alternative would be to help with aircraft.

Reynolds said the Australian government’s position was very clear.

“We are deeply concerned by the heightened tensions in the region and we strongly condemn the attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Oman,” she said.

“The request that the United States has made is a very serious one and it is a very complex one. That’s why we are currently giving this request very serious consideration.”

US secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the news conference that the US had been very clear that the purpose of the proposed operations had been twofold.

“First of all, to promote the principle of freedom of navigation and freedom of commence through all waterways.

“Number two, is to prevent any provocative actions by Iran that might lead to some misunderstanding or miscalculation that could lead to a conflict.

“When we first advanced this idea several weeks ago, we had good response from some of our allies and partners. We continue to develop that idea,” he said.

The AUSMIN talks were attended by Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Reynolds, Pompeo and US Defence Secretary Mark Esper.

Esper also met Morrison on Sunday afternoon and Morrison had Pompeo to dinner on Sunday night.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.

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



Footage released by Iran’s Sepah News reportedly shows Revolutionary Guard Corps boarding the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero.
EPA/Sepah news handout

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

In a world run ragged by multiple crises and an unravelling of American global leadership, military confrontation in the Gulf poses risks that extend well beyond the region itself.

One of the greater risks is to a global economy dependent on the continued flow of oil from Middle East producers in the Persian Gulf.

A Gulf crisis is the last thing the world needs when confidence between Washington and its European allies has been undermined by an unpredictable Donald Trump administration.




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


Tensions between the US and China over multiple trade and other issues are not helping.

These are high octane moments in the Gulf as America and its allies confront difficult choices in how to deal with an Iran that has clearly decided to test the limits of western tolerance.

Iran’s seizure in international sea-lanes of a British-owned tanker in the Gulf of Oman at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf itself is highly provocative.

Britain, with Boris Johnson likely to be installed as its new prime minister this week, is facing a test of its resolve. Its ability to navigate its way through this crisis carries with it real risks of wider conflict.

Detention of the Stena Impero in retaliation for Britain’s seizure earlier this month off Gibraltar of the Iranian oil carrier, the Grace 1, represents a significant escalation of what had been a war of words between Tehran and London.

Iran’s wider purpose is to raise the costs to the west of maintaining security in the Persian Gulf in response to American-imposed sanctions that are strangling the Iranian economy.

Attacks on oil tankers and facilities in the Gulf over the past month are widely attributed to Iran or its proxies. These attacks have reminded the international community that one-third of the world’s seaborne oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz every day.

Iran has the ability, if only temporarily, to shut down a choke point that is critical to the well-being of the global economy. Interference with oil shipments from the Gulf would prompt a spike in prices and prove a drag on slowing economic activity globally.

Tehran’s regime is playing a high stakes game born of its worsening economy. American-imposed sanctions are doing real harm to livelihoods and well-being of Iranians.

Reports of sporadic civil unrest over rising prices and shortages attest to the challenges facing the regime.

Sanctions are crippling Iran’s ability to export its oil, overwhelmingly its main source of foreign exchange. The US says that since oil sanctions were tightened last November, Iran has lost something like US$10 billion in revenue foregone.

The International Monetary Fund reports that Iran’s economy shrank by 3.9% last year. It is expected to shrink by a further 6% this year. Unemployment has risen sharply.

At the same time, the value of the Iranian rial against the US dollar has collapsed by 60% in the past year, adding to cost of imports and fueling inflation.

There are reported shortages of imported medicines.

It is against this background that Tehran has clearly embarked on a campaign to remind the West of its ability to increase the costs of maintaining regional security.

Tehran’s message is this is not a zero game.

For Washington and its allies, the question becomes: how does the international community respond to Iranian provocations?

Does it allow the US, egged on by the Sunni Gulf state like Saudi Arabia, to lead it into a military confrontation with Iran, or does it seek to deescalate potential conflict?

This is a question the federal government needs to ponder since it is likely Australia would be asked to make a contribution in the event of a continued deterioration of the security environment.

Given the stakes involved, the wisest course would seem to be reopening discussions with Tehran about Gulf security and an American-imposed sanctions regime.

However, this will be easier said than done.

Washington would need to unscramble an ill-advised decision to abrogate a 2015 agreement to freeze Iran’s nuclear program. The US reimposed sanctions that had been eased under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated painstakingly over some months by the Barack Obama administration.




Read more:
Trouble in the Gulf as US-Iran dispute threatens to escalate into serious conflict


Trump’s decision to abandon the JCPOA and reimpose sanctions is what has brought the Gulf to the brink. If conflict results, this will be a heavy price for capricious American policymaking.

Iran was complying with its obligations under the JCPOA. But it has now indicated it will resume enriching uranium above agreed levels.

Faced with the possibility of renewed conflict in the Gulf, Trump himself has offered to talk to Iranian leaders “without preconditions”. Tehran has said it will not negotiate without an easing of sanctions.

Overcoming this impasse will require concessions Washington has not yet indicated it is prepared to make. In the meantime, the risk of wider conflict grows.

This is just the scenario Middle East experts have been warning about.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.

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



The United States’ reinstitution of punitive sanctions is causing real hardship to Iranians.
AAP/EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Let’s start with a number. On any given day, more than 17 million barrels of oil pass through what is known as the world’s most important chokepoint.

Those 17 million-plus barrels constitute about 20%, give or take a few percentage points, of world oil consumption daily.

The waterway in question is the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Arabian Gulf to the north. It is 33km wide at its narrowest – where its “chokepoint” shipping lane measures just 3km across.

This is barely enough space for supertankers to pass.

Any interruption to seaborne oil-trade through the strait in the world’s most volatile region would immediately push up oil prices, add to risks of a global recession and prompt concerns about a wider conflagration in the Middle East.




Read more:
Trouble in the Gulf as US-Iran dispute threatens to escalate into serious conflict


The Strait of Hormuz is not simply a chokepoint. It would become a flashpoint in the event of military confrontation between the US and Iran.

It is hard to overstate the dangers of unintended consequences from an escalation of American military pressure on Iran that risks bringing the region to the brink of war and severing an economic lifeline to the rest of world.

This scenario hardly bears thinking about. Yet Donald Trump has seemed determined to push Iran to the brink by re-instituting punitive economic sanctions that are causing real hardship to Iranians.

What is at stake for the regime in Tehran is its survival. It will not yield to crude American pressures which reflect a certain mindset in Washington that appears to believe that regime change on the cheap is achievable.

At the heart of an escalating dispute between the US and Iran is the US withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal and re-imposition of sanctions, notwithstanding that Iran was complying with its obligations. Iran is now threatening to resume production of low-enriched uranium beyond amounts specified in the deal.

This agreement was negotiated over many months by the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany to forestall Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Washington’s abrogation of it ranks as the most irresponsible act – among many – of the Trump administration.

America’s stringent sanctions that penalise entities that do business with Iran, allied with risks of conflict in the Gulf, are exerting enormous stress on the Western alliance.

American leadership in this case is perceived to be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Vali Nasr, an Iranian specialist at the International Crisis Group, warns of a mistake or a miscalculation. He told The New York Times:

President Trump may not want war, but he will get one unless he balances coercion with diplomacy.

At this point, there is not much sign that American diplomacy provides a real prospect of an easing of tensions.

This week, the US announced it was deploying another 1,000 troops to the region to join more than 6,000 already in place. It has sent an aircraft carrier battle group to the Gulf, and has positioned B-52 bombers on bases in proximity to Iran.

All this is feeding high levels of anxiety in the Gulf region and across the Middle East. Further afield, markets across Europe, Asia and North America are nervously watching developments.

Whatever Washington’s strategy of exerting maximum pressure on Iran is, it is not working. It is also not clear whether there is a plan B.




Read more:
Why Trump’s decertification of the Iran nuclear deal may prove a costly mistake


America’s avowed aim is to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to force concessions on the nuclear deal. The US also wants the Iranians to scale back what Washington perceives to be their destabilising behaviour in the region.

This includes allegations Iran is behind a series of attacks in the Gulf on shipping tankers and oil pipelines in recent weeks. Iran denies involvement.

Circumstantial evidence of Iranian involvement is fairly compelling. But such is the damage done to Western intelligence credibility by mistakes in the lead-up to the Gulf War in 2003 that anything Washington says based on its own intelligence is questioned.

Let’s put forward another figure. The 17 million barrels passing through the Strait of Hormuz daily represent 30% of the world’s seaborne-traded oil.

Those shipments account for the bulk of oil shipped by the world’s major oil producers and OPEC members – Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

There’s another figure that is relevant. About 25% of the world’s traded liquefied natural gas (LNG) also transits what is arguably the world’s most strategically important waterway. Qatar, which matches Australia as the world’s largest exporter of LNG, sends almost all of its LNG through the strait.

In other words, this is a crowded energy superhighway by any standards.

The strait connects the Arabian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman to the south and the Arabian Sea beyond.

It is bounded on the eastern perimeter by Iran and to the west by the oil-rich Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis have been urging their American allies to take “surgical” reprisals against Iran for attacks on shipping in the Gulf. In such a case, Iran would not turn the other cheek.

Tehran is certain to have a roster of retaliatory options starting, no doubt, with a further disruption to shipping in the Gulf. American naval forces could be deployed to keep Gulf sea lanes open, but this would come at a cost.

The most immediate cost would be felt in the world’s energy markets. What could not be discounted is another war in the Middle East and the destabilisation of the entire region.

These are dangerous moments.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.

Trouble in the Gulf as US-Iran dispute threatens to escalate into serious conflict



US President Donald Trump’s language has only inflamed the tense situation.
AAP/EPA/Jim La Scalzo

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

The last thing the world needs at a moment of significant trade tensions between the United States and China is a Middle East crisis that would further imperil global growth.

Yet this is what is threatening in the Persian Gulf, where the US and its Arab allies are edging towards a showdown with Iran in a contested waterway through which 20% of the world’s tradeable oil passes daily.

In coordination with its Arab allies, notably Saudi Arabia, and with Israel, the US is ratcheting up pressure on Iran to wind back its support for what it terms “bad actors” in the region.

This includes Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, radical groups in the Palestinian territories, including Hamas, the Houthis in Yemen, and disaffected anti-regime elements in the Gulf.

While the US denies it is seeking to bring about regime change in Iran, this clearly is its hope.

Conflict is not inevitable, but risks are elevated by combative talk – and actions – from a Washington that seems bent on engaging in the sort of brinkmanship that threatens more serious conflict in a region already on edge.




Read more:
Is a war coming between the US and Iran?


Washington’s deployment of an aircraft carrier battle group and B-52 bombers in the Gulf region is amplifying concerns.

President Donald Trump is not helping; to the contrary.

On one hand, he invites Iran’s leaders to talk. On the other, he warns of that country’s annihilation.

This sort of bombast, the antithesis of wielding a big stick and talking softly, coincides with tightening US sanctions that are doing significant damage to Iran’s economy.

These measures include sanctions imposed this month on Iran’s industrial metals sector. This sector accounts for about 10% of its export economy.

How Tehran responds to these harsh assaults on its economic lifelines is anyone’s guess, but what is certain is that its response will not be passive.

Already this month we have witnessed two sets of terrorist attacks on Gulf oil interests Iran, or its proxies, are blamed for an assault on four ships in which explosives damaged the hulls. Two of these vessels are Saudi-owned. In the second, Iran proxies are blamed for drone strikes on a Saudi Arabian oil pipeline.

In response to terrorist threats to its eastern oil-rich provinces, Saudi Arabia’s state-controlled media have begun calling for “surgical strikes” against Iranian interests.

Such action would provoke a wider conflagration.

What tends to be overlooked in all of this is the ease with which Iran, on a previous occasion, stifled oil shipments from the Gulf.

In 1984, Iran was widely believed to have been responsible for rolling second world war mines into Gulf waterways in the so-called “tanker war” with Iraq. This destroyed several vessels and brought tanker traffic to a halt for weeks.

Adding to jitters are recent reports that a Katyusha rocket fell near the American embassy in central Baghdad. Iranian-backed militias, with their strongholds across the Tigris River in the east of the city, are suspected of launching the rocket.

Washington had already ordered non-essential US personnel out of Baghdad. Oil giant ExxonMobil has begun moving employees out of the region. The US has warned commercial air traffic of increased risks in the Gulf.

This is a movie we have seen before, in the first Gulf War and in the 2003 invasion of Iraq to remove Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Iran proved to be a significant beneficiary of the chaos that resulted from a destabilisation of the Middle East following the US-led invasion.

None of this is contributing to a stable oil market, on which the global economy rests.

On top of punitive sanctions against Iran, sanctions on Venezuela and disruptions in Libya caused by a civil war have unsettled markets.

Dramatic cuts in Iran’s oil shipments due to US-imposed sanctions followed Washington’s withdrawal last year from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) aimed at forestalling Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Until sanctions started to bite, Iran was the second-largest exporter among Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), behind Saudi Arabia. At their peak, Iranian exports were about 3 million barrels a day.

That number has now slid to 500,000 barrels or less, according to oil market analysts. But in its attempts to skirt US sanctions, Iran is no longer reporting production to OPEC and is not providing definitive information on exports.

As things stand, US sanctions are being adhered to by most importers of Iranian crude, with the likely exceptions being China and India. The US removed waivers on countries accepting Iran’s oil in November after withdrawing from the JCPOA in May 2018.

The 2015 agreement, negotiated by the Obama administration in partnership with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, froze Iran’s nuclear program for 15 years. The agreement was designed to provide an opportunity for the West to take counter-measures in case Iran upscaled its production of fissionable material.

By withdrawing from the JCPOA without a fallback position beyond punitive sanctions and threats of military action, the US has separated itself from its allies and left itself few options beyond further sanctions – or military threats.




Read more:
Stakes are high as US ups the ante on trade dispute with China


That is, unless Trump’s offers of direct negotiations with Iran’s leaders bear fruit. At this stage, a tense standoff in the world’s most volatile region is not only dangerous, it could have been avoided by the US adhering to an agreement that was far from perfect, but better than the alternative.

That alternative is estrangement from its allies on Iran, and now real risks of a further security deterioration in the volatile Gulf.

Philip Gordon, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, summed up the dilemma for US policy and that of its allies rendered anxious by risks of adventurism in the Gulf in pursuit of an American goal of regime change in Tehran. He wrote that barring something extraordinary such as the collapse of the Iranian regime,

It’s hard to see how this current conflict could end without the United States backing down or with a further and very dangerous escalation. The Trump administration should have considered all this before it walked away from the nuclear deal in the first place.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.

Twenty-five years after the Oslo Accords, the prospect of peace in the Middle East remains bleak


File 20180917 96155 1jfhqz3.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
US President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat sign the historic Oslo accord at the White House in September 1993.
Wikicommons/Vince Musi

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Looking back on events 25 years ago, when the Oslo Accords were struck on the White House lawn, it is hard to avoid a painful memory.

I was watching from a sickbed in Jerusalem when Bill Clinton stood between Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for that famous handshake on the White House lawn.

At that moment, I was recovering from plastic surgery carried out by a skilled Israeli surgeon and necessitated by a bullet wound inflicted by the Israeli Defence Forces. (I had been caught in crossfire while covering a demonstration in the West Bank by stone-throwing Palestinian youths.)

That scar – like a tattoo – is a reminder of a time when it seemed just possible Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians could bring themselves to reach an historic compromise.

All these years later, prospects of real progress towards peace, or as American president Donald Trump puts it, the “deal of the century”, seems further away than ever.




Read more:
Russia expands in the Middle East as America’s ‘honest broker’ role fades


As a correspondent in the Middle East for a decade (1984-1993) and as co-author of a biography of Arafat, I had an understandable interest in the outcome of the Oslo process.

In hours of conversations with members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s historical leadership, I had tracked the PLO’s faltering progression from outright rejection of Israel’s right to exist to acceptance implicit in the Oslo Accords.

Throughout that process of interviewing and cross-referencing with Israeli sources, I had hoped an honourable divorce could be achieved between decades-long adversaries. Like many, I was disappointed.

In 1993, the so-called Oslo Accords, negotiated in secret outside the Norwegian capital, resulted in mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO. This enabled the beginning of face-to-face peace negotiations.

A devastating event

Two years after the historic events at the White House, and by then correspondent in Beijing, I witnessed another episode of lasting and, as it turned out, tragic consequences for the Middle East.

On November 4, 1995, Rabin was assassinated while attending a political rally in Tel Aviv by a Jewish fanatic opposed to compromise with the Palestinians.

That devastating moment brought to power for the first time the current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has distinguished himself by his unwillingness to engage meaningfully with the Palestinians through four US administrations: those of Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama, and now Trump.

Some argue the Palestinians and their enfeebled leadership bear significant responsibility for peace process paralysis. That viewpoint is valid, up to a point. But it is also the case that Netanyahu’s replacement of Rabin stifled momentum.

Under Trump, Netanyahu finds himself under no pressure to concede ground in negotiations, or even negotiate at all. Indeed, the administration seems intent on further marginalising a Palestinian national movement, even as settlement construction in the occupied areas continues apace.

US President Donald Trump, here with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has promised the ‘deal of the century’ in the Middle East, but the details have not yet been made clear.
AAP/ Olivier Douliery/pool

On the eve of the accords, there were 110,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That number has grown to 430,000 today. In 2017, those numbers grew by 20% more than the average for previous years.

The Trump administration’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem without making a distinction between Jewish West or Arab East Jerusalem could hardly have been more antagonistic.

By taking this action, and not making it clear that East Jerusalem as a future capital of a putative Palestinian state would not be compromised, the administration has thumbed its nose at legitimate Palestinian aspirations.

The administration’s follow-up moves to strip funding for the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA) and assistance to Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem have further soured the atmosphere.

UNWRA is responsible for the livelihoods of thousands of Palestinian refugees in camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. These are the ongoing casualties of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence against the Arabs.

In this context, it is interesting to note that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East envoy, has urged that refugee status be denied Palestinians and their offspring displaced by the war of 1948.

In that year, two-thirds, or about 750,000 residents of what had been Palestine under a British mandate became refugees.

Against this background and years of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, including two major wars – the Six-Day War of 1967 and Yom Kippur War of 1973 – the two sides had in 1993 reached what was then described as an historic compromise.

Hopes dashed

What needs to be understood about Oslo is that its two documents, signed by Rabin and Arafat, did not go further than mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO in the first, and, in the second, a declaration of principles laying down an agenda for the negotiation of Palestinian self-government in the occupied territories.

What Oslo did not do was provide a detailed road-map for final status negotiations, which were to be completed within five years. This would deal with the vexed issues of refugees, Jerusalem, demilitarisation of the Palestinian areas in the event of a two-state settlement, and anything but an implied acknowledgement of territorial compromise, including land swaps, that would be needed to bring about a lasting agreement.

Writing in the Journal of Palestine Studies in 1994, Oxford professor Avi Shlaim described the White House handshake as:

one of the most momentous events in the 20th-century history of the Middle East. In one stunning move, the two leaders redrew the geopolitical map of the entire region.

Now emeritus professor, Shlaim’s own hopes, along with those of many others, that genuine compromise was possible, have been dashed.

Referring to the recent passage through the Knesset of a “basic law” that declares Israel to be “the nation-state of the Jewish people”, Shlaim recently observed:

This law stands in complete contradiction to the 1948 declaration of independence, which recognizes the full equality of all the state’s citizens ‘without distinction of religion, race or sex’… Netanyahu has radically reconfigured Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, rather than a Jewish and a democratic state. As long as the government that introduced this law stays in power, any voluntary agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will remain largely a pipe dream.

Martin Indyk, now en route to the Council on Foreign Relations from the Brookings Institution, shared Shlaim’s hopes of an “historic turning point’’ in the annals of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As Clinton’s National Security Council adviser on the Middle East, Indyk was responsible for the 1993 arrangements on the White House South Lawn. He writes:

The handshake was meant to signify the moment when Israeli and Palestinian leaders decided to begin the process of ending their bloody conflict and resolving their differences at the negotiating table.

Two decades later, in 2014, the funeral rites were pronounced on the Oslo Process after then Secretary of State John Kerry had done all he could to revive it against Netanyahu’s obduracy. Oslo had, in any case, been on life support since Rabin’s assassination.




Read more:
Fifty years on from the Six Day War, the prospects for Middle East peace remain dim


“Then,” in Indyk’s words, “along came Trump with “the Deal of the Century”. Indyk writes:

His plan has yet to be revealed but its purpose appears clear – to legitimize the status quo and call it peace. Trump has already attempted to arbitrate every one of the final status issues in Israel’s favor: no capital in East Jerusalem for the Palestinians; no ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees; no evacuation of outlying settlements; no ’67 lines; no end of occupation; and no Palestinian state…
Over 25 years, in shifting roles from witness to midwife, to arbiter, the United States has sadly failed to help Israelis and Palestinians make peace, leaving them for the time being in what has essentially been a frozen conflict.

However, as history shows, “frozen conflicts” don’t remain frozen forever. They tend to erupt when least expected.

Twenty-five years ago, I shared a bloody hospital casualty station – not unlike a scene from M.A.S.H. – with more than a dozen wounded Palestinians. Some of them would not recover from terrible wounds inflicted by live ammunition.

I asked myself then, as I do now: what’s the point of it all?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.

Erdogan’s victory will have far-reaching implications for Turkey and the Middle East



File 20180626 19404 1mhb7ev.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets supporters after winning with 52% of the vote in the Turkish election.
AAP/Turkish president press office handout

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the incumbent president and main political actor in Turkish politics for the last 16 years, has won yet another election with a majority vote of 52%.

The election was held in the climate of a two-year state of emergency, Erdogan’s considerable weight on Turkish media, and his ruling party’s dominance of the election process. This was no ordinary election and will have historic ramifications for Turkey, its relations with the West and the Middle East.

The election has put in effect the terms of 2016 constitutional changes and ended the fragile Turkish parliamentary democracy that has been in place since 1950. As of June 24, Turkey has ventured into a democratic league of its own.

In the new executive presidential regime, there will be elections and multiple political parties. Once elected, though, the system unifies powers in one person, the president, rather than enforcing the all-important principle of separation of powers in a liberal democracy.




Read more:
Stakes are high as Turkey, Russia and the US tussle over the future of Syria


Erdogan will form the government by appointing ministers from inside or outside the parliament. His presidential decrees will be equal to legislation. As the leader of the ruling AKP party, he will hold the majority vote in the parliament – in effect, he will control the legislative branch.

Erdogan will appoint half of the top council, which appoints judges and prosecutors. The other half will be appointed by the parliament he controls. He will have sweeping powers to abolish the parliament and declare a state of emergency any time.

The new constitution stipulates two five-year terms. If an early election is called during the second term, the incumbent president can be nominated for a third term. This means Erdogan could possibly be in power until 2034.

Erdogan wins elections with an Islamo-nationalistic populism that is a cross between Trump and Putin. Like Trump, he promises to make Turkey great again as a global economic and political power, reviving the past glories of the Ottoman Empire.

Similar to Putin, Erdogan follows a confrontational approach in foreign policy, takes bold military steps in Syria and rallying the population behind him in a nationalistic fervour.

The key lies in Erdogan’s almost absolute control of the Turkish media. This not only raises questions about the fairness of elections in Turkey, but also explains the diffusion of a powerful narrative behind Erdogan’s political success.

The formula is simple: undertake large-scale road, bridge and airport building projects and launch them with media fanfare. This makes even the reluctant supporters say about the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), “they are corrupt, but they also work”.

Secondly, anything that goes wrong in Turkey is explained as a Western conspiracy. If rating agencies drop Turkey’s credit rating, it is not because of poor economic and political policies controlled by Erdogan for the last 16 years. Rather, it is explained as Western subversion to undermine the Turkish economic success.

A case in point in illustrating the appeal of the Erdogan narrative is the Dirilis (Revival), a state-funded television series that narrates the foundational story of the Ottoman Empire in the 13th century.

The hero of the series, Ertugrul Bey, father of the founder Osman Bey, often clashes and wins against Byzantine and Crusader forces who are determined to pillage Muslim land and kill innocent Muslim populations. It is the Muslim version of Games of Thrones, watched by millions around the world.

Many see Erdogan as the modern-day personification of Ertugrul Bey, fighting imperialistic forces against all odds to revive Islamic civilisation and become a voice for oppressed Muslims around the world.

His supporters are convinced Erdogan is the greatest leader in Turkish history, one who would make Turkey a world power and bring back pride for Turks and all Muslims. The narrative is intoxicatingly attractive to traditionally religious Turks and masses of Muslims around the world.

This sets the scene for what to expect in Turkey-West relations. The West, the European Union and the US are the antagonists in Erdogan’s narrative, and will continue to be so. He is not likely to mend relations with the EU, let alone make the necessary reforms to gain EU membership.

Aiming to have a growing influence in the Middle East, Erdogan will intensify his relationship with Russia over Syria. Putin will use Turkey to undermine the NATO alliance. This will further stretch EU-Turkey relations, which are already in tatters over the purchase of Russian S-400 missiles.




Read more:
Syria, Russia and Turkey – the uneasy alliance reshaping world politics


Erdogan’s dilemma is that the EU is Turkey’s largest economic partner and he needs funding from Western banks to service Turkey’s growing USD$450 billion foreign debt. This is increasingly worrying Turkish businesses.

During his election campaign, Erdogan travelled to the US and UK to convince lenders and business investors to continue to fund the Turkish government and economy. Erdogan is likely to play out a love-hate relationship with the West.

While Erdogan has no qualms about resorting to anti-Western rhetoric, his supporters forget that it was the same West that hailed Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership as a new hope in the post-9/11 world. Turkey was portrayed as a leader and a model for the Muslim world, where Islam and liberal democracy could harmoniously co-exist.

Turkey could show the world it was possible to stay true to Islamic values and identity while being a first-grade democracy with freedoms and affluence. Other Middle Eastern countries would follow the Turkish success, rising above the seemingly perpetual political turmoil, social discord, economic ruin and inevitable suffering of ordinary Muslim people.

The ConversationBut, 16 years on, Turkey has become just another typical Middle Eastern country.

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.