Beyond acknowledging the existence of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Rodger Shanahan’s views on Iran and my own differ greatly. At the core of our disagreement is how Iran might employ its nascent nuclear capability. I’m clearly more pessimistic than Dr Shanahan, who sees the Iranians developing nuclear arms essentially as a defensive shield. On the other hand, I’m far more concerned about the offensive utility of such weapons in the hands of an unstable and irrational polity.
The source of my pessimism arises from Iran’s record within the international system, remembering that this is the same polity which:
- has pursued an adversarial foreign policy with the West since the 1950s, steadfastly ignoring prolonged diplomacy and United Nations Security Council Resolutions;
- funded a clandestine uranium-enrichment program for nearly two decades and been in formal breach of its nuclear arms control obligations since 2006;
- likely possesses an offensive biological weapons program and an offensive chemical weapons research and development capability;
- continues to destabilise the Middle Eastern balance of power through subversive support of terrorist proxies like Hezbollah;
- has emphasised in the Majlis a desire for regional expansionism and positioned itself at the forefront of an anti-Western grouping that includes North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, Sudan and Zimbabwe;
- ignores global distaste for its human rights record and reputation as the world’s leading public executioner; and
- most alarmingly, has publicly avowed the destruction of the state of Israel.
Assumptions about Iran’s intent must be informed by Tehran’s long support for policies and capability development priorities that either threaten, or have the potential to threaten, international security interests. And, while I’m not in the habit of quoting Gareth Evans or Kevin Rudd, their often-used maxim, that diplomatically, ‘words are bullets’ is literally true in Iran’s case.
Beyond irrationality of this kind, the general tenor of Iran’s strategic intentions is difficult to divine by even the most informed Western pundits—and perhaps even by the majority of Iranians. That’s in keeping with its status as a closed theocratic State.
And, it’s precisely because of this combination of longstanding Iranian intransigence with the international community, the selective aggression shown particularly towards Israel, and the destructive potency of a nuclear arsenal, that the West shouldn’t be prematurely optimistic about Iran’s intent. The world must remain cautious in responding to Iranian signals of rapprochement.
The first role of national leadership is to ensure the survival of the nation state. Inevitably, that’s a goal which is often short on time and absolute truth. Rather, strategic leaders must meet the challenge of deciding and acting when they intuitively feel they have sufficient information and intelligence to justify what they’re about to do. And, having acted, they must then live with the consequences—personal, domestic and even international. And their wider constituencies—us—are compelled to do likewise.
Unwittingly, or not, that’s exactly the position into which the Iranians are now corralling Israel and its allies. And this, most of all, is why Iran poses an ongoing threat to regional stability.
In a sense, Dr Shanahan has looked at the problem adroitly, but almost certainly with excessive sympathy for the Iranian perspective. Perhaps now, he might consider it from—to use Liddell Hart’s evocative expression—‘the other side of the hill’, Israel’s perspective.
Andrew Nikolic is the federal member for Bass and a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, and the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. Image courtesy of Flickr user John Scott.