Features Australia

Iranian bombshell

She may be the ayatollahs’ pin up girl, but Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is flirting with danger

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the courageous Somali woman and former Dutch MP, was in Australia some years ago to launch her book. Among the other MPs at the swanky lunch her publisher put on were myself, the not-quite Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott, and Julie Bishop. Ms Bishop hadn’t yet read Ali’s book, and seemed unfamiliar with the issue of extremist Islam in Europe. To be fair, this was in the era before jihad was a household word, and well before Da’esh conquests in Iraq.

Eight years later, a few weeks ago in Canberra, I saw Ms Bishop dominate the welcome to the new Japanese Ambassador at his embassy, her metamorphosis complete. Seldom have I seen the transformation of a fellow politician from ugly duckling to peacock. Without notes, she gave a succinct tour de force of Australian-Japanese relations. Nowadays she seems very self-assured on the international stage, which is why her recent genuflections to the Islamic Republic of Iran seem so odd and is so problematic.

On 19 June, only the West Australian reported that Bishop was close to signing a memorandum of understanding with Iran, whereby Australia would consider toning down its travel advisory (it currently warns Australians to ‘reconsider their need to travel’ to Iran) and grant Iran permission to build consulates in Sydney and Melbourne. Australia would also offer Iran scholarships for Iranian students and an increase in work and holiday visas for Iranians. These concessions would be in exchange for a deal on the return to Iran of asylum seekers to whom it was found Australia does not owe protection under the Refugee Convention.

Comrade Bishop, for all her qualities, is not big in the history department. It was under Malcolm Fraser’s little-remembered Foreign Minister Tony Street that Ghaddafi opened a Libyan cultural centre in Melbourne in the 1980s. In the 90s, the Nationals’ Mark Vaile allowed the opening of a Syrian consulate in Sydney, which (in the era when Syrian troops occupied Lebanon) was mainly used to monitor and subvert the Lebanese community in Sydney. Eventually, both outfits had to be closed down for security reasons.

So the idea of allowing Iran to open up consulates in Melbourne and Sydney has poor precedents. It could exacerbate inter-Islamic community tensions.

The Foreign Minister’s forays on Iran have so far not had a great start. At a 2 June meeting in Paris of allies opposed to Da’esh, Bishop said, ‘The Iranians are doing much of the fighting but we are not hearing from them’. She advocated that Iran be brought into strategic negotiations with the West. Whatever France and the US’s indulgent attitude is to the Iranian’s nuclear negotiations, they draw the line at open military collaboration.

Indeed, Bishop is right. Iranian-controlled Shi’ite militias do much of the fighting in the largely Sunni western Iraq, where (the Sunni extremist) Da’esh made territorial conquests last year. Yet intervention of these militias is perhaps the most counter-productive responses possible. If anything, it will further drive the local Sunnis into Da’esh’s arms. Worse, Iran has long sought regional hegemony and through local proxies now dominates Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Sana’a. This is a dangerous trend, as the increasingly concerned pleas of Western allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Israel have made clear. Undertaking or advocating policies that strengthen Iran’s position is not smart. Yet Bishop is doing just that. One intelligence source Iran will share with Australia is Kataib Hezbollah, a Shi’ite militia accused of human rights abuses, which ‘interrogates’ Da’esh prisoners it captures in Iraq. We might as well be reading Mad magazine though, as Hezbollah believes Western jihadists are part of a conspiracy linking Da’esh to Western intelligence agencies.

Ms Bishop’s April visit to Iran seems to have fundamentally altered her perspective. Under the 2013 interim agreement, Iran was required to convert its enriched uranium to the more benign uranium oxide, but has only converted five per cent. Worse, since early 2014, Iran has produced a further four tons of enriched uranium. On 23 June, Iran’s Supreme Leader made clear the inspection regime upon which the forthcoming P5+1–Iran nuclear agreement is supposed to be founded won’t happen. Banking and financial sanctions must be dropped immediately, he demanded. ‘We oppose the condition that fulfilment of the opposite side’s undertakings [i.e. dropping the sanctions] depend on the IAEA (verification) report because the Agency has proved time and again that it is not independent and fair.’ Khamenei reiterated his definite opposition to ‘unconventional inspections, interrogation of Iranian figures and inspection of military centers’, citing them as among Iran’s other red lines. To the chants of ‘Death to America’, and in a scene that would have done the Berlin Sportspalast (circa 1939) proud, the Iranian Parliament waved through legislation that imposed those very conditions.

Australia is vociferously opposed to rolling out the ‘red carpet’ to terrorists, yet on the terrorist front Iran is embarrassing our foreign minister. Inconveniently, the US State Department’s annual report, released this month, makes clear Iran’s continuing sponsorship of international terrorist groups, particularly Hezbollah (which is also proscribed by the Australian Parliament).

Bishop’s concessions—consulates, travel advisories, military cooperation and intelligence sharing—have so far come to nought. A 24 June report out of Iran has dismissed talk of Iran giving Bishop what she wants. ‘No agreement has been reached about forced repatriation of asylum seekers’ said the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswomen Marziyeh Afkham. If Bishop wants that concession, she’ll have to offer more. Current trends would indicate that she will, but will her mates in Cabinet wake up first? Her tilt to Iran is short-sighted and harmful for Australia and our friends in the Middle East.

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