We get the English word ‘chess’ from the Persian word Shah (king). The linguistic identification of this part of the world with chess belies its Indian origins, but in a country where the ancient nobility were required to learn the game as part of their education, Australia’s Julie Bishop will soon be making her own play in the great game of Middle East power broking.
In a sense Bishop is running the ball up for the Western world in general and America is particular. Without diplomatic relations between Iran and the USA, the Americans can’t really send their own delegate. Besides this technicality, it would be political poison for both countries to get too cosy too soon. (Look how long it’s taken for the Cubans to get a casual chat.) Australia though can be seen as a more acceptable face of the West, despite our staunch allegiance with America. Indeed, it’s because of our connection with America that we are seen as a reliable back channel to Washington. In any case, having never severed relations with Iran after the revolution, the door has remained open for Australia.
It is interesting to note though that for Australian domestic political reasons, the visit is being framed in the context of asylum seeker repatriation. That’s a much easier sell to the public than the idea of cuddling up to a regime with an appalling human rights record and a penchant for dangerous isotopes.
Downers and uppers
It’s not the first time Australia has played this role. In 2003 the then Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, took off for Tehran in the hope that the Islamic Republic could become an active participant in the War on Terror…or at least be persuaded not to interfere in Iraq too much. However the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, his subsequent rhetoric and Iran’s growing influence in the region put the developing rapprochement on ice.
Now that the real heavy-weights have hammered out some broad agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, overtures to bring Tehran in from the cold will commence. Given that the path to rehabilitation will undoubtedly have some glitches, this dance will be slow at first. The Australian visit is merely the opening move.
In a sense this role of diplomatic front man for America is just a continuation of Australia’s recent seat on the Security Council. During that tenure, proposals driven by Australia on transnational terror funding and humanitarian access to Syrian territory were significant wins, which would have been more likely defeated had they come straight from the American camp.
Is Bishop just a pawn?
Seeing Australia merely as America’s sock puppet is too simplistic. Being engaged in world diplomacy and being seen to be so engaged is to Australia’s benefit. Having a seat at the big table and facilitating important projects is consistent with our aspirations as a ‘middle power’. Bishop’s credibility as an independent actor is also high following her performance over the Malaysian Airlines shoot down. There is of course always the danger, especially with some regional neighbours, that Australia might be seen getting too big for its boots. This risk though needs to be balanced off against the reward of positioning the country as a reliable and competent diplomatic go-between.
Moreover, in our fascination with foreign relations, people often overlook the T in DFAT. But if Iran is able to open its shutters for business later in the year, Bishop’s visit is a canny play in making sure Australian exporters have some inside track into a market that has been starved of goods and services for years. The usual agricultural and mineral commodities will be on the table. Education providers will also be keen to ramp up their access to the Iranian middle class. If only we still had a car industry to offer Iranians the chance of tooling around in a big Aussie V8.
Whatever they might want to buy or sell though the endgame with Iran is far away. And for Australia, being part of the match is better than spectating.