US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018 and the subsequent series of sanctions that have followed, has triggered a series of events that have put Australia in a difficult position. Relations between the US and Iran have worsened following increased Iranian aggression in the region, with Iran recently seizing a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. President Trump has responded by among other things, increasing the amount of US troops deployed in the region and selling arms to Saudi Arabia.
Prime Minister Morrison should see tensions between the US and Iran as an opportunity to solidify his relationship with the mercurial President Trump, not only to strengthen Australia-US relations, but to put Canberra in a stronger position should it need to rely on US support amidst rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific region. China has offered large sums of money to many of the island states in the region, partly to induce states to end their diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Beijing’s renewed presence close to Australian borders is of obvious concern to Canberra. Scott Morrison’s first act since his re-election as Prime Minister was a trip to the Solomon Islands, announcing details of $250 million in infrastructure funding to be delivered over 10 years. This visit was the first by an Australian Prime Minister in over a decade and it was not a coincidence.
Tensions in the South-China Sea and Beijing’s growing ambitions in the Indo-Pacific means Chinese influence in the area is growing. As Australia does not have the diplomatic influence or military power to keep China at bay, it is seeking greater involvement from Washington. Backing US sanctions will lead to stronger ties between Canberra and Washington and give Morrison a degree of leverage as he seeks greater US involvement in the region.
Backing sanctions also increases the international pressure on Iran to return to the negotiating table. Negotiations could have the beneficial effect of decreasing uncertainty and instability in the Strait of Hormuz, a region where close to 20% of the world’s oil passes through. Any impact to supply will lead to an increase in the price of oil, which would be bad news for the already weak Australian economy. Australia imports around 90% of its oil and possess an oil stockpile that would last only 55 days, well below the International Energy Agency recommendation of 90 days. Disruptions to oil supplies to the Asia-Pacific could also see Chinese demand for Australian exports decrease.
Australia, however, must be careful when backing US sanctions on Iran. European powers have stuck by Iran in the hope of salvaging the JCPOA, going so far as to develop a mechanism for European businesses to continue trading with Iran without violating US sanctions. Australia may find itself the odd one out by backing US sanctions and in the process, isolate itself from the international community. In addition, should tensions continue to escalate, Australia could be dragged once again into a long-running conflict in the Middle East, with Scott Morrison refusing to rule out providing military support should it be requested.
However, the recent election of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister of the UK may mean that Australia would not be alone in backing US sanctions. The British government has strongly condemned the actions of Iran in seizing the ‘Stena Impero’, demanding they release the oil tanker immediately. Johnson’s favourable attitude to Trump was on display when he declined to back the then British Ambassador to Washington, Kim Darroch, over unflattering comments he made towards the President. Britain’s stance towards the US-Iran crisis may shift as the new Prime Minister opts for a closer relationship with Washington, backing US sanctions in the process.
As tensions between the US and Iran continue to rise, Australia must decide quickly on the best course of action. Scott Morrison has been extended a surprise invitation to attend the upcoming G7 summit in France and may well use the opportunity to show his backing for US sanctions on Iran in the hope of convincing other world leaders to do the same.
Jacob Stokes is a Bachelor of Security and Counterterrorism graduate from Murdoch University.