On 22 May, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a new report on Iran’s nuclear activities. Nothing in it was particularly shocking, but like the many similar reports that preceded this one, it’s a stark reminder of the international community’s failure to halt Iran’s nuclear progress, despite over 10 years of diplomatic and covert efforts. According to technical experts, despite a series of UN Security Council sanctions and other autonomous sanctions imposed by individual states, Iran has made progress across the board in its nuclear program. It has stepped up the pace of uranium enrichment, increased the volume of material that it is enriching to a higher level (not quite weapons grade, but most of the way there), and is pushing ahead with a program to produce plutonium. At the same time, satellite photos indicate that Iran is trying to conceal evidence that it conducted nuclear weapon-relevant experiments at a site in Parchin. Amid these revelations, diplomats working at IAEA headquarters in Vienna have been quietly sharing their concerns, warning that Iran has significantly reduced the time it would need to produce a crude nuclear device.
These are worrying developments, and yet the Gillard government’s response to the Iran nuclear threat receives very little coverage in the national media. This may be due to an assumption that, because Australia is strategically remote from the Gulf region, and is not among the six states that have taken the lead on diplomatic negotiations (the so-called P5+1: China, France, Russia, the UK, the US plus Germany), Canberra doesn’t have a significant role to play. But this isn’t the case. Despite a history of strong trade relations and political engagement with Iran, which were hardly disrupted by the Iranian Revolution and US hostage crisis, Australia has taken a strong and consistent stand against Iran’s nuclear defiance.
In October 2008, Australia became one of the first states to impose unilateral sanctions on Tehran for its nuclear activities. These sanctions have been expanded and tightened through additional legislation in July 2010, August 2012, and January 2013. Since 2011, DFAT (which is responsible for implementing the sanctions) has been engaged in intensive bilateral, regional and multilateral discussions on Iran’s nuclear program—engagement that has deepened since Australia took up its non-permanent seat on the Security Council in January this year. The current Chair of the UNSC Iran Sanctions Committee is Gary Quinlan, Australia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, who, along with Foreign Minister Bob Carr, has been moving Australia’s position on Iran closer to the EU’s tough stance.
The latest, gloomy IAEA report might encourage Australia to tighten its unilateral Iran sanctions still further, in an effort to slow Iran’s progress and buy more time for diplomatic negotiations. This would be a reasonable step. At the same time, it’s important that Canberra maintains its efforts to engage the regime, and avoids the path taken by Canada—a fellow big hitter on the international non-proliferation circuit. After years of nurturing diplomatic ties, Canada closed its embassy in Tehran in 2012, severed diplomatic relations, and has announced that from next week it will boycott the Conference of Disarmament, because the Chair is due to pass to Iran. In many ways, this is an easier path to take, avoiding the difficult balancing act that comes with trying to combine punitive measures with continued diplomatic engagement. But international isolation strongly reinforces proliferation pressures and exacerbates nuclear defiance. Severing of diplomatic ties will also make it much more difficult for Canada to engage with the moderate elements in Iranian society; elements that might one day force a change in the regime and trigger a major rethink of the country’s nuclear aspirations.
This kind of reversal has occurred on a number of occasions (most dramatically in the case of South Africa, which dismantled a program that had produced several nuclear bombs), but anyone hoping that a similar moment could be approaching in Iran is likely to be disappointed. The upcoming Presidential election is unlikely to change very much, given that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei calls the shots on Iran’s nuclear decision-making. It was Khamenei who convinced Ayatollah Khomeini—his predecessor and the father of the Iranian revolution—to restart the nuclear program that had been mothballed since the overthrow of the Shah. Khamenei has been in the driving seat ever since, and as long as he remains there, there’ll be very limited opportunities for external actors to influence the country’s nuclear ambitions.
The challenge for Australia is to use its influence in the Security Council and the Iran sanctions committee to urge other states to maintain a steady path on Iran (despite the obvious frustrations), just as Canberra has done since 2008. This will become more difficult as the lead time on an Iranian breakout capability continues to narrow, and pressure for military strikes increases. But the use of force isn’t a viable option where Iran’s nuclear program is concerned, because it wouldn’t attract sufficient international support and the risks would likely outweigh the benefits (PDF).
Tanya Ogilvie-White is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.