On Monday 7 January, Foreign Minister Bob Carr announced that Australia has been chosen to head the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions committees on Iran, and on the Taliban al-Qaeda. The committees are tasked with monitoring the implementation of UNSC sanctions and recommending further measures.
Carr trumpeted the news as a “big vote of confidence” in Australia’s “diplomatic pull” in the area of weapons non-proliferation. The Murdoch-owned The Australian echoed Carr's tone, describing Iran as a “rogue state” with an “undeclared program to develop nuclear weapons”.
In relation to Iran, the move is better seen as a big vote of confidence in Australia’s willingness to pursue the US goal of forcing regime change through sanctions and other destabilising measures. Four days later on Thursday 10 January, Carr announced that Australia would be adopting further unilateral sanctions against Iran to bring Australia in line with those recently imposed by the European Union (EU) and the US.
Carr said the new sanctions will “further increase pressure on Iran to comply with its nuclear non-proliferation obligations and with UN Security Council resolutions and to engage in serious negotiations on its nuclear program”.
However, the allegation that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program remains unsubstantiated after 10 years of investigations by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). “Serious negotiations” have been precluded by the West’s insistence that Iran relinquish its legal right to a civilian nuclear energy program.
The IAEA and the UNSC
Since details of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear program emerged in 2002, the US and its allies have used the issue to demonise Iran. Iran’s referral to the UNSC and subsequent sanctions reflect the power of the US to influence decision-making in international organisations like the IAEA and United Nations, rather than any threat to international peace and security posed by Iran’s nuclear program.
The decision of whether to refer a state found to be in non-compliance with its IAEA safeguards agreement to the UNSC is at the discretion of the IAEA Board of Governors. In 2004, Egypt and South Korea were found to have had carried out undeclared nuclear activities but neither state was referred to the UNSC.
In his memoirs, then IAEA director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, recounts the US’s “eagerness to promote unverified intelligence as evidence”, in order to push the IAEA to report Iran to the UNSC from the outset. When no “actionable information” was found during initial investigations, “[t]he only US strategy”, according to ElBaradei, “was to put pressure on Iran, through the IAEA and the press, in the hope that damning evidence would come to light or that an informant would come forward with a ‘smoking gun’.”
Between 2003 and 2006, Iran implemented the IAEA’s optional Additional Protocol, allowing the agency’s inspectors unprecedented access to Iranian sites. By the time the IAEA referred Iran to the UNSC in Feb 2006, most of the questions over Iran’s nuclear facilities had been resolved. No evidence of diversion of nuclear materials for military purposes had been found.
In ElBaradei’s words, the UNSC referral was “primarily an attempt to induce the Security Council to stop Iran’s enrichment program, using Chapter VII of the UN Charter to characterize Iran’s enrichment – legal under the [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] – as a threat to international peace and security”. Iran’s nuclear program was at that stage a small, pilot-scale centrifuge cascade, a long way from the industrial-scale enrichment required to produce nuclear weapons.
UNSC Resolution 1696 made suspension of Iran’s enrichment activities mandatory, paving the way for future sanctions when Iran refused to comply. The resolution came at a time when Israel was waging war on Lebanon. The US and the UK prevented the UNSC from passing a resolution calling for a cease-fire until after more than 1,000 Lebanese had been killed and over 700,000 Lebanese civilians had been displaced. The double-standard was clear: the West was unwilling to characterise Israel’s aggression as a threat to peace and security, whilst condemning Iran on the basis of unproven allegations.
The IAEA investigation into Iran’s nuclear program has continued in parallel with negotiations between Iran and the UK, Germany and France (the EU-3), which were joined by the US and Russia in 2006 (the P5+1). These negotiations are ostensibly aimed at resolving concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, but the US and EU-3 have pushed for increasingly tough sanctions in disregard of the outcome of IAEA investigations.
In August 2007 the IAEA and Iran agreed to a three-month “work plan” in order to resolve all outstanding issues. Rather than welcoming an initiative which could enable the IAEA to conclusively determine whether Iran’s nuclear program had a military dimension, the US condemned the IAEA for “striking its own deal”. ElBaradei believed, “[t]he plan made them nervous: an uptick in Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA weakened the chance of prodding China and Russia into imposing any further sanctions”.
A September 2007 cable from the US Embassy in London published by WikiLeaks reports that British officials were concerned about the work plan, telling their US counterparts: “Do not let the IAEA timetable interfere with ours”. The cable reports Antony Phillipson, Iran Coordinator at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as saying “that it was important to not permit the IAEA’s workplan to slow down or interfere with the EU3's own agenda. For instance, bowing to pressure to put off submission of a [UNSC] resolution pending some IAEA report or visit would weaken our efforts”.
The P5+1 ultimately endorsed the work plan. However, its successful implementation and subsequent positive IAEA Board of Governors report on Iran were soon followed by another UNSC resolution which imposed more sanctions.
In 2010 Iran, Turkey and Brazil announced they had reached an agreement would have seen most of Iran’s low-enriched uranium shipped to Turkey. Again, the apparently positive news was greeted with the announcement that another draft UNSC resolution with more sanctions had been agreed upon. ElBaradei accused the West of “not accepting yes for an answer”.
UNSC sanctions resolutions initially imposed a ban on the supply of nuclear-related materials and technology, and froze the assets of entities and individuals related to Iran’s nuclear program. The measures now restrict dealings with banks deemed to be connected to the program, and prohibit the provision of financial services, which “could contribute to Iran*s proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities”.
The US has been able to further attack Iran’s economy without needing the approval of other UNSC members, through the imposition of far-reaching unilateral sanctions.
The US began sanctioning Iran after the revolution of 1979 which deposed the Western-backed shah. A full trade embargo was imposed in 1995. In 1996, the US moved to partially extend the embargo to other countries via legislation which penalised foreign companies and individuals that invested $20 million or more in one year in Iran’s energy sector, or sold amounts of refined petroleum to Iran above a designated amount.
In 2007 the Bush administration began blacklisting Iranian banks. As well as locking the Iranian banks out of the US financial system, this move served to deter non-US financial institutions from dealing with Iran. In 2011, President Obama passed legislation which restricts the access of foreign banks to the US financial system if they do business with the Central Bank of Iran, effectively leaving them with a choice of doing business with Iran or the US. In July 2012 Obama announced sanctions against foreign banks which process Iranian oil transactions.
The US has gone into diplomatic overdrive to ensure that its allies adopt similar measures. However, the pursuit of regime change in Iran has necessitated charting a careful course between harsh sanctions and protecting the interests of Western corporations.
Since Iran’s economy is heavily dependent on exports of crude oil, the US has pushed hard for sanctions in this area. However, such measures threatened to drive up the global price of oil, which EU countries feared would damage their own economies.
Amidst escalating rhetoric about Iran’s nuclear program, the EU was finally persuaded to impose an oil embargo on Iran in July 2012. Prior to the embargo taking effect, the US threw its political weight behind measures designed to avoid an “oil shock”.
US diplomats persuaded Saudi Arabia to increase output to a 30-year high by May 2012. The US also used its new-found leverage in war-torn Iraq and Libya to persuade those countries to increase oil production: by September 2012 Iraq was producing 500,000 more barrels per day than a year earlier, and Libya's production had increased from 200,000 barrels to 1.5 million per day.
In order to ensure that the damage to Iran’s economy was not offset by oil exports to other countries, Obama set up a committee in January 2012 to persuade other major consumers of Iranian oil to reduce their imports. Iranian oil exports to China and India had reportedly fallen by just over 30% by September 2012.
The US has also urged EU countries to use measures to restrict trade with Iran beyond the level required by sanctions. A 2007 cable from the US Embassy in London reported that US Treasury official, Patrick O'Brien, “suggested the UK increase its regulatory and licensing surveillance against UK-based Iranian banks. By strictly enforcing bank reserve requirements, and fit and proper determinations - among other safety and soundness regulations - UK regulators may be able to further curtail the activities of Iranian banks and entities”.
Another cable from the US Embassy in Berlin lauded the “bureaucratic means” employed by the German government to make trade with Iran more difficult, including delaying expert permits, cutting export credit guarantees and increasing customs controls. The cable reported that the German government “is quietly making trade with Iran so costly that many German exporters are simply walking away”.
The US can count on Australia
Successive Australian governments have supported the US's campaign against Iran, pressing for tougher UNSC sanctions and introducing unilateral sanctions in line with the US and the EU since 2008.
Cables from the US Embassy in Canberra reveal the lengths to which Australian officials have been prepared to go to support the US position, including conspiring with the US to oust ElBaradei from his position as director general of the IAEA.
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 January 2012, shortly after the EU announced its plan to implement an oil embargo against Iran, then-foreign minister Kevin Rudd promised that “we in Australia will undertake precisely the same parallel action”. New sanctions were put in place prohibiting the import, purchase or transport of specified Iranian crude oil, petroleum or petrochemical products.
The latest round of sanctions announced by Foreign Minister Carr include an embargo on natural gas imports from Iran, and prohibit Australian individuals and entities from engaging in financial transactions with the Central Bank of Iran.
Lost oil revenue means less money for health, education and infrastructural work. Import and banking restrictions and a sharp decline in the value of Iran’s currency have made it increasingly difficult for Iran to import essential goods.
A shortage of medicines and medical supplies is threatening the lives of tens of thousands of patients suffering from serious conditions including cancer, AIDS and haemophilia. The decline in industry and resulting unemployment, coupled with an estimated 70% rise in the price of basic food prices, are forcing many Iranians into poverty.
The people of Iran, who were already suffering under a repressive theocracy, have become “collateral damage” in the West’s economic war on Iran. As one Iranian put it in a New Year message by the Voices From Iran: “The Islamic Republic of Iran is screwing us, sanctions imposed by western governments or Iran are screwing us ten times harder.”