Barely 10 years after false claims about weapons of mass destruction were used to justify the invasion of Iraq, a similar narrative is being used by politicians in the US and Israel to push the case for war with Iran. You might not know it from mainstream media reports, but Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program and, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has an inalienable right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.
It is thought that Israel has up to 400 active warheads but, unlike NPT signatories, it has never agreed to open up its nuclear program to inspection. The US has about 2000 active warheads and is arguably in violation of the NPT itself for its failure to meet the disarmament requirement enshrined in Article VI of the treaty.
US President Barack Obama’s “Global Zero” initiative to rid the world of nuclear weapons has amounted to little more than rhetoric. A 2011 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the US spends more money on nuclear weapons than the rest of the world combined.
In effect, two countries with a combined nuclear arsenal probably greater than any other are threatening war with another country because it may have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons in the future. This would be yet another illegal war of aggression, the “supreme international crime” as defined at Nuremberg.
WikiLeaks has given us unprecedented access to information with which to challenge the self-conferred moral authority of the US and its allies to decide which states can and cannot have nuclear weapons. Diplomatic cables from the US Embassy in Canberra published by WikiLeaks suggest Australia’s role in US relations with Iran is shaped by its slavish support for the US and Israel, and its position as the world’s second biggest seller of uranium.
A “slippery slope” of accountability
Several cables during the build-up to the five-yearly NPT Review Conference (RevCon) in May 2005 describe the measures the US and Australia were prepared to take to ensure the focus, both inside and outside the conference, remained on “non-compliance issues: the bad guys”.
Both countries wanted to use the conference to push for Iran to be reported to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for alleged violations of its IAEA safeguards agreements, whilst avoiding any criticism for the US’s own potential violation of the NPT.
One cable reported that DFAT Deputy Secretary Nick Warner said maintaining this double-standard would require a “carefully orchestrated process”. The US (which did not hold the UNSC Presidency) was “working on a UNSC Presidential Statement on the 35th Anniversary of the NPT” which would hopefully “serve to remind NPT parties not to lose the (security) forest for the (disarmament) trees”.
Discussion over one of the US and Australian official conference “talking points” in another cable show the precariousness of the US position: “The United States will underscore and seek recognition that NPT parties are responsible for exercising independent judgment in assessing compliance with the Treaty's nonproliferation obligations and for holding violators accountable for their actions and enforcing compliance.”
This approach could reduce the decision-making power of unhelpful officials — such as International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamad ElBaradei — and give the US more scope to use its political weight to influence the decisions of NPT member states.
However, Australia was concerned about potential unintended consequences. David Mason, Director of Australia’s Arms Control Office, said Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) states at the conference might want to “apply the same ‘exercising independent judgment’ rubric under Article VI against the Nuclear Weapons States”.
Article VI of the NPT obliges signatories “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”. Mason worried the US’s approach could “‘open up a slippery slope’ of independent judgments that neither the US nor Australia wanted to see”.
As well as efforts to contain discussions inside the conference, cables detail the “public diplomacy outreach” methods the US could employ to push its agenda outside the conference. A cable said the US Deputy Chief of Mission in Canberra “thought it might be good to produce a documentary laying out Iran’s history of supporting Hizbollah and other terrorists, and then ask viewers to consider what it would mean to have a nuclear-armed Iran. Luck [Ambassador At-Large for Counterterrorism] agreed - so long as the USG itself did not make the documentary”.
In a later cable, the US Embassy answered questions from the US government about “the most useful ways to convey the U.S. message on NPT issues to the Australian public”, such as the use of a Digital Video Conference (DVC): “The host government is firmly on board with USG policy and does not require further outreach, but think tanks, specific journalists and universities in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne could be targeted, particularly on the need to focus on the "crisis pillar" of the NPT, which is not disarmament, but nonproliferation. Another option would be to arrange a DVC just for journalists with an eye towards placement of articles based on the discussion.”
The Embassy went on to recommend: “Articles and editorial pieces by very senior US officials for our Office of Public Affairs to place in "The Australian," "The Sydney Morning Herald," "The Age," "The Daily Telegraph" and the "Australian Financial Review," among others. … While providing the U.S. record on disarmament, the articles should also highlight the need for noncompliant states to be put under the international spotlight during the Review Conference.”
In the end the US did come under sustained criticism for alleged non-compliance with the NPT at the 2005 RevCon, by the NAM states and other delegates. However, a report by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting said the US media was significantly more compliant than the NPT delegates and largely ignored the US’s “bad atoms”.
Conspiring to oust ElBaradei
IAEA Director-General from 1997 to 2009, Mohamad ElBaradei was an unwelcome impediment to US ambitions in the Middle East. After leading a team of weapons inspectors in Iraq in 2002, he challenged the evidence about weapons of mass destruction used to justify the invasion. In March 2003, he told the UN Security Council that documents claiming to show that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium from Niger were fake.
ElBaradei’s resistance to recommending that the IAEA Board find Iran in non-compliance with its NPT safeguards agreements further angered the US, and the George W Bush administration resolved to unseat him as Director-General.
It embarked on an extraordinary but unsuccessful campaign to, in the words of one senior US official who opposed it, “make sure that everybody knew that the maximum power of the United States would be brought to bear against them if he were brought back in”. This included intercepting ElBaradei’s phone calls to try to find information that would discredit him.
A cable from February 18 2005 titled, “NPT Envoy Ambassador Sanders Hears Australian Ideas To Prevent A Third Term For Iaea Dg Elbaradei”, shows Australian officials were keen to help the US’s underhanded campaign. Among the options discussed, the cable reports “Australia strongly supported” a two-term rule for the IAEA Director-Generalship. Australian Safeguards and Nonproliferation Office Director-General, John Carlson, suggested “dredging up” ElBaradei’s so-called “failed Technical Cooperation projects to help build support against him”.
Carlson accused Iran of “perverting” the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by claiming its Article IV right to nuclear technology, but he rejected ElBaradei’s proposed five-year moratorium on nuclear technology transfers as “not practical”. At a later meeting, Australia’s Assistant Secretary for International Security, David Stuart, said Australia “had to consider its own status as a supplier and its possible future interest in enrichment and reprocessing technology”.
The February 18 cable included the text of an “informal Carson document”, which accused ElBaradei of “politicizing the [IAEA] Board” by refusing to say Iran was non-compliant. This is ironic considering the machinations of US and Australia officials described in this cable.
Other WikiLeaks cables show that the US was intent on politicising what is supposed to be an independent international body to further its agenda. The Barack Obama administration successfully lobbied to instate Yukiya Amano as ElBaradei’s successor in 2009. After a meeting with Amano in July 2009, the US Embassy in Vienna noted the “very high degree of convergence between his priorities and our own agenda at the IAEA” and looked forward to the transition period, which “provides a further window for us to shape Amano's thinking”.
By October 2009, a cable titled “Amano ready for Prime Time”, described the new Director-General as “solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program”.
US-Australian relations on nuclear issues were complicated by Kevin Rudd’s rise to power in 2007. Labor had a longstanding policy of opposing nuclear cooperation with non-NPT signatories, which the US feared might jeopardise its planned civil nuclear agreement with India, a non-NPT state. The US needed Australia’s support to approve the deal in the Nuclear Supplies Group (NSG), which sets guidelines for nuclear-related exports. It repeatedly raised the issue in meetings with Australian diplomats.
Early on there were signs that Labor’s policy could be dispensed with. While Rudd was still Opposition leader, the US Embassy reported that his foreign policy adviser, Peter Khalil: “Understood and accepted that renewed nuclear-power cooperation with India was a necessary price to pay for a closer relationship. Australia's uranium industry could in fact benefit from renewed trade with India, he noted …”
A few months after Rudd took office in February 2008, defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon offered further hope, telling a meeting with US Defence Secretary Robert Gates that the “political aspects” would have to be approached sensitively, but “both he and [foreign minister Stephen] Smith are personally supportive of such enhanced cooperation”. By August that year, Rudd’s senior advisor, Gary Quinlan, assured the US Ambassador that Australia "will not stand in the way". By September, the NSG had granted India an exception as a non-NPT state and approved the US-India deal.
Another cause for US alarm was Rudd’s announcement in June 2008 of a new International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (the Evans Commission). Cables show the US was affronted by Rudd’s decision to announce the commission without telling them first: “Along with other members of the diplomatic community here, we are struggling to understand why a careful operative like Rudd, with his solid bureaucratic and diplomatic credentials, continues to risk undermining support for his goals by failing to consult with stakeholders and build support from within.”
Following the announcement, US Embassy officials made their view on the Evans Commission clear in a cable that cited a derisive article about it by News Limited journalist Greg Sheridan. It described Sheridan as “one of the more respected journalists” and quoted his article at length.
And in a meeting shortly after Rudd’s announcement, the US was keen to make sure Rudd’s Commission stayed on message. Acting Assistant Secretary of the US State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, Patricia McNerney, “discouraged an International Commission predominantly focused on disarmament, noting it would divert the spotlight away from such proliferators and NPT violators as Iran, Syria and North Korea, and ignored the positive progress that was being made in disarmament.”
"No better friend in the world”
Despite these concerns, the US was confident that under Rudd, Australian policy would “stay at the tough end on Iran”. The Israeli Ambassador to Australia, Yuval Rotem, told the US Embassy that Rudd had described Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as “a loathsome individual on every level”, and threatened to take him to an international tribunal on charges of inciting genocide against Israel.
The Israelis regarded Rudd as being a useful tool in the propaganda war against Iran, with Ambassador Rotem noting: “Israel sees Australia as playing an important role in the "global PR battle" on Iran because PM Rudd is viewed favorably by the "European Left," many of whom are skeptical about taking a tough line towards Tehran.”
The US was further reassured by then deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s comment that “Australia's ultimate priority would be Israel's security”.
By the time preparations for the 2010 RevCon began, Rudd government officials were echoing the line of their Howard-era predecessors. On the subject of non-compliance on the part of Iran and North Korea, DFAT officials told the US: “Australia believes that NPT parties should take action to address this issue. However, the, treaty itself does not address what represents non-compliance. Debate on this issue could lead to states unhelpfully arguing that nuclear weapon states are in non-compliance with their Article commitments.”
The UN passed the first of four resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran in 2006. Australia introduced autonomous sanctions in October 2008. Discussing Iran’s nuclear program in October 2009, First Assistant Secretary for International Affairs at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Patrick Suckling, told the US that Australia was "completely aligned" with the US position, adding: “Australia wants the most robust, intrusive and debilitating sanctions possible."
When the US sought to ramp up UN sanctions against Iran a few months later, US Ambassador Bleich confidently reported that Australian officials, “will follow the U.S. lead on Iran and would be receptive to any input on how best to proceed. Australia can be counted as a strong supporter of whatever course the United States chooses to pursue.”
In June 2010 the UN Security Council passed another resolution to increase sanctions against Iran. Within days then-foreign affairs minister Stephen Smith announced more Australian autonomous bilateral sanctions against Iran.
US alliance all the way
The US is continuing its build-up of naval and air forces in the Gulf region, and a war of sorts is already underway against Iran. As well as draconian sanctions, Israeli secret services are believed to be behind the assassination of several Iranian nuclear scientists and computer viruses such as Stuxnet have been used to target Iran’s nuclear facilities. US attempts to force regime change in Syria are widely seen as part of a proxy war against Iran.
It is not clear whether a full-scale military conflict involving US and allied forces on the ground in Iran will eventuate, and to what extent Australia would become involved. There are no Cablegate releases from Julia Gillard’s time as Prime Minister but we can see the same themes driving her government’s policies.
Gillard successfully pushed for Labor to change its policy on selling uranium to India, and her government has authorised uranium sales to the United Arab Emirates. Gillard has certainly fulfilled the US requirement that she “show her support for the Alliance with the United States”.
Her government has increased bilateral sanctions against Iran, allowed 2500 US marines to be stationed in Darwin, and has not ruled out the deployment of more US forces in Australia, including a nuclear aircraft carrier and nuclear submarines. As such Australia is already deeply involved in an increasingly militarised dispute with Iran, which may yet develop into another catastrophic, criminal war.