Possible Yemen role for RAN. 4-star ambassador for Australia. By Hamish McDonald.

Despite Trump, Iran nuclear deal working

US Navy admiral Harry Harris, who is to be nominated as ambassador to Australia, pictured at the joint military exercise Talisman Sabre in June.
US Navy admiral Harry Harris, who is to be nominated as ambassador to Australia, pictured at the joint military exercise Talisman Sabre in June.
Credit: Jason Reed / AFP / Getty Images

When you’re the president of the United States and deeply entangled in a slanging match with the leader of a rising nuclear power so heated it worries even your own political allies, the answer is clear: you open up a new confrontation with a potential hostile nuclear power on the other side of the world.

As this week drew to a close, America’s friends were waiting for this other shoe to drop. Donald Trump was due on Sunday to certify that Iran was complying with its side of the agreement with the US and five other big powers to limit its uranium-enrichment activities and otherwise cap any development of nuclear weapons capability at least until late next decade.

In his speech last month to the United Nations, Trump said the agreement, reached in the final months of the Obama administration in 2015, was an “embarrassment” to the US. In his election campaign, he promised to withdraw from it. Only Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu was applauding.

Shortly after, the UN ambassadors from Britain, France and Germany declared the Iran agreement was working, and the bad behaviour Trump complains about – Revolutionary Guard activity in Syria and Iraq, support for Hezbollah, missile tests, jostling US ships in the Gulf – isn’t actually covered in the agreement. In testimony to congress, the defence secretary, James Mattis, and the armed forces chief, General Joseph Dunford, gave qualified support for it. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has urged all parties to abide by it, including the US.

On Monday, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, told a Rome conference: “I can state that the nuclear-related commitments undertaken by Iran under the [nuclear agreement] are being implemented.” He should know, as the agency has maintained real-time monitors on all Iran’s nuclear sites and regular intrusive inspections. The agency has now certified compliance seven times, every three months, since the agreement.

This is all baloney in Trump’s inner circle. Earlier this year, Central Intelligence Agency analysts briefed their new Trump-appointed chief, Mike Pompeo, that they’d come to the same conclusion. Iran was complying. “Good,” Pompeo said, according to a CIA source who spoke to Vanity Fair. “But we know they’re cheating anyway –we’re just not seeing it.”

Conjecture is that Trump will “decertify” and push for renegotiation to limit all the above behaviour. Iran has made it clear it will refuse, and none of America’s allies, let alone Russia and China, have any interest in reopening what took years to conclude. Congress would have 90 days to decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran, but Republicans seem unlikely to comply, especially after their Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the senate foreign relations committee, has said Trump’s tweets on North Korea were putting the US “on the path to World War III”.

Yemen role for RAN

With everyone effectively ignoring Trump and sticking to the Iran agreement, that would maintain the status quo. More worrying are reports coming out of Washington that Trump and Pompeo are planning to ramp up “covert action” against Iran and designate its Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation, putting its chiefs and operatives in the scope of drone attacks.

This would create even more controversy here about the expanding role of the Pine Gap military and intelligence space station near Alice Springs, from nuclear arms verification and missile launch detection into real-time war-fighting, including drone strikes in the Middle East. These currently target Sunni Arab international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabaab in Somalia, Daesh in Syria and Iraq, and Boko Haram in the African Sahel.

Including Iranian targets would get us involved in the great Islamic sectarian war across this region. While the dark side of Iran’s Shiite theocracy is tied up with some nasty allies who use nerve gas and randomly rocket civilians, the Sunni states supported by the US are contributing to the horrendous catastrophe in Yemen through their intervention in the civil war against the Houthi rebels, a Shiite group backed by Iran. The UN says seven million of Yemen’s 28 million people face starvation, and a cholera epidemic is sweeping the country. This week it said Saudi and Gulf military strikes killed or injured 683 children last year, with Houthi attacks causing 414 child casualties.

Canberra this week dispatched the frigate HMAS Warramunga for a nine-month rotation with a multinational fleet operating in the north-western Indian Ocean. The goals are countering piracy and drug-trafficking, but seem to include helping enforce an arms embargo on Yemen as well as Somalia. From what the Defence Department has announced, the RAAF refuelling and command aircraft operating out of the United Arab Emirates have not joined the US support for Saudi and Emirati air strikes in Yemen. However, the naval operation could edge us into helping one side of this horrible conflict.

With Daesh close to defeat in Iraq and Syria, it’s surely time to review our military and diplomatic positions in the Middle East to check whether we are on the right side, or if there are no right sides, to withdraw.

4-star ambassador

Our man in Washington, Joe Hockey, whose triumph as Tony Abbott’s treasurer in shutting down the Australian car industry was on display at Toyota’s Altona factory this month, appears overjoyed that Trump is moving to nominate the US Navy’s Pacific commander, Admiral Harry Harris, for the vacant post of ambassador to Australia.

Being retired by then, he would hardly have the plenipotentiary powers of the previous US four-star general to take up residence here, Douglas MacArthur, nor the troubleshooting role of the “ambassador for coups” Marshall Green, sent by Richard Nixon to guard against the Whitlam government’s softness on communism. No need, though, as Hockey is reported to be warning that anti-Trumpism could turn into anti-Americanism.

The appointment is supposed to affirm the strategic alliance with Australia, and send a strong message to China, as Harris has made a lot of hawkish statements about Chinese activity in the region. The question is: Does this help? Military firmness is one thing, but US policy badly needs a social, political and economic narrative to contest Chinese influence.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, started by George W. Bush, pursued to agreement by Barack Obama, then trashed by Trump, was one major effort to build such a counterweight to the trillion dollars of One Belt-One Road largesse being waved around by Xi Jinping, whose triumphant elevation to Mao Zedong-like status is due at the Chinese Communist Party congress starting on Wednesday.

Our diplomatic relations are militarised enough without generals and admirals taking over major diplomatic posts. Nor do we lack connections to the US Pacific Command. At any time we have about 40 officers embedded there, and Major-General Roger Noble is now the third successive Australian Army officer to fill the post of deputy commander of US land forces in the Pacific. Our new frigate fleet is getting anti-ballistic missile capability to make it more useful to the US Navy.

Still, Harris will run a competent ship in Canberra. It could be much worse, looking at the campaign donors and soulmates Trump is appointing elsewhere, such as Kelly Knight Craft, wife of billionaire coalminer Joe Craft, posted to Canada, and Robert “Woody” Johnson IV, owner of the New York Jets and heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, to London.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2017 as "Despite Trump, Iran nuclear deal working".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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