This site is for sale.
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

We must think very carefully before committing to war in the Gulf

Iranian technicians work at the Bushehr nuclear power plant in this 2010 image released by Iran. Credit:International Iran Photo Agency

The United States withdrew from this nuclear deal last year. While enrichment of uranium to just over the agreed limit is not a signal that Iran is intending to develop nuclear weapons, it will certainly escalate tension with the United States. Last week’s seizure, by the British Royal Navy, of an Iranian supertanker off Gibraltar has escalated the Iran-US tension beyond the Middle East into the international arena.


Any war in the volatile environment of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East would not be, as Trump said, ‘‘quick and short’’, but rather a blazing regional and international conflict which may disturb the world economy and endanger global peace and security. Five conflicts have broken out in the Middle East in the past two decades (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen). None of these has yet ended.

In late June, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo officially called on Australia to play a role in a new global coalition against Iran. Following Pompeo’s request, Prime Minster Scott Morrison did not rule out possible Australian involvement in a possible military conflict between the US and Iran. Trade Minister Simon Birmingham stated that Australia may consider imposing further economic sanctions on Iran.

After the events of September 11, 2001, John Howard invoked provisions of the 1951 ANZUS Treaty to demonstrate Australia’s support for the US in its war against the Taliban/al-Qaeda and later against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

The ANZUS Treaty is a non-binding arrangement between Australia and the United States. It is a general security relationship-creating mechanism for both countries to find ways to make joint decisions for mutual security and military co-operation within their constitutional arrangements and international legal obligations (ANZUS, article 4). Australian and US forces have fought together in many major conflicts over the past century.

Nevertheless, Australia has no legal obligations under the ANZUS Treaty, or any other international agreement, to join the US in another possibly long, chaotic and devastating regional conflict. Indeed, under the Charter of the United Nations, to which both Australia and the US are parties, the use of force is prohibited unless authorised by the Security Council of the United Nations.

Australia’s Prime Minister must think very carefully before committing Australia to a war that has virtually no international support, no international legal justification, and no rational justification. Pompeo’s global coalition consists, so far, of the Trump administration. Not even Iran’s regional foe, Saudi Arabia, is on board. Support has not been received from any European or Asian country nor from any other of the 193 United Nations members.


Instead, the European Union is backing measures, provided by France, United Kingdom and Germany, known as Instruments In Support of Trade Exchange (INSTEX), to facilitate trade between the EU and Iran to partially get around the US sanctions, in order to save the 2015 nuclear deal, to maintain dialogue with Iran and to prevent an international military crisis.

Australia would be much wiser to join the EU’s INSTEX and engage in dialogue with Iran. This could defuse regional tensions and discourage hawkish members of the Trump administration, Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, from opening up an international conflict. Such a conflict would inevitably result in significant loss of life and interruption of the world energy supply, with consequential disruption of the global economy. As a result, large flows of refugees would increase, including those seeking to travel to Australia.

Should Morrison decide to enter into a conflict in one of the most volatile regions of the world, he will not have the decision-making power to end it. He would do well not to drive Australia into such a war, instead, given Australia’s international reputation, he should help European countries, the world community and the United Nations to avoid a useless armed conflict, which will not benefit any country.

War with Iran won’t be like war with Iraq: significantly more pain, more bloodshed and more devastation for the entire world, including Australia, will be the result.

Hossein Esmaeili is an associate professor of international law at Flinders University.