Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s visit to Tehran this week presents a rare opportunity for Australia to take the lead in global diplomacy. The publicly stated goal of the trip has been limited to the dubious intention of convincing the Rouhani government to allow Iranian nationals seeking asylum in Australia to return without fear of victimisation. But the implications of the visit are much more important and far-reaching than that.
The need for a diplomatic initiative to change the dynamic in relations with Iran is obvious. As the mounting crisis in the Middle East reminds us every day, the policy of confrontation has failed. Contrary to the efforts of hawks around the world – including in the US Congress – a more nuanced strategy of dialogue and engagement is urgently needed.
Hawks have made us less secure
Not only has the approach based on isolation and unrelenting economic and political pressure failed, but it has been catastrophically counterproductive for all sides. International trade has suffered and security has not improved.
The withdrawal of countries from the Iranian market under pressure of sanctions policies – as in the case of Japan – has simply opened up opportunities for competitors such as China and Russia. It has played no role in generating meaningful progress on the nuclear issue. The Iranian economy has been brought to the point of collapse, with disastrous effects for ordinary citizens but little impact on the opulent lifestyles of many officials and wealthy businessmen.
If these facts are not enough, the ongoing, desperately tragic events in the region should be the game changer. The long-term stand-off between the US and Iran has prevented solutions to arguably the most important and dangerous problems in the world today.
There can be no resolution to the civil war in Syria without the cooperation of Iran. Defeat of Islamic State and its hateful ideology requires the forging of a partnership between Iran and the West. The re-Islamisation of Turkey can only be resisted with support from the secular traditions exemplified in Iranian history and culture. Overcoming the impasse in Lebanon and Gaza associated with the continuing influence of Hezbollah and Hamas will only be possible when Iran considers it to be no longer in its interests to support them.
What can Australia do?
Julie Bishop’s visit comes at a perfect time. The recent successes in the P5+1 negotiations in Geneva, in which Iran signalled its agreement to accept significant restrictions to its nuclear program, have for the first time in decades created a climate of genuine hope for change. The agreement is yet to be ratified by both sides – and approval by the US Congress is by no means assured. It is, however, an indication that at least some politicians on both sides recognise the urgency of the situation and the need to go beyond the useless hostility of the past.
This is where Australia can step in and take the lead. Exactly what political rapprochement with Iran will ultimately look like is uncertain but we can play an important role in shaping it.
The possibilities could involve an agreement to scale down funding of extremist anti-Israeli organisations and a negotiated transition of power in Syria. In exchange, Iran would get renewed access to world markets and all that comes with active membership of the international community. The possibility of a military alliance to bring a quick end to the Islamic State and to restore stability to Iraq – an idea unthinkable only months ago – should not be ruled out.
Civil society offers many ways to engage
Relations with Iran involve more than just interactions between governments. There is also direct engagement between our own civil society and the many non-government groups there. This is the approach we must adopt to forge a new relationship between Iran and the West in order to overcome the grim legacy of the last 35 years.
Iran is a large, complex society with vast resources and a population close to 80 million. More than 20 million are university students and graduates. The members of the vast, educated, entrepreneurial middle class are the main supporters of democracy; they are the natural allies of Western partners hoping for more relaxed and open social policies in Iran.
Ironically, the members of this group have been the principal victims of sanctions policies. They have been left exposed politically and as a result of the growing unemployment and radicalisation of youth these policies have produced.
This is the time for a change in direction in the policies of the world community towards Iran to allow normal economic and cultural intercourse to resume. It is time to scale down the sanctions and to become engaged, openly and generously, with different levels of Iranian society.
The depth of the past hostility may mean that any changes have to occur incrementally. Both sides will need to test the viability and local acceptance of a gradual re-establishment of exchanges between them.
The places to start are the safe areas of education, culture and business. All these areas offer exciting opportunities for Australia.
Educational exchanges could help restore our crisis-ridden educational sector, while assisting Iran in overcoming a critical shortage of high-quality knowledge providers. There are almost unlimited possibilities for two-way cultural exchanges that draw on the thriving Iranian culture industry, especially in film, music and literature. Business people will find an inexhaustible thirst for new products, from electronic goods to fashion, to new techniques for producing renewable energy.
Western countries have discovered again and again that bullying tactics are often counterproductive but that quiet victories can be won by cultural and economic engagement. In the case of Iran the bullying – in which Australia has been a willing partner — has failed. It is time to try the gentle alternative.
Iranian society is ready for change
Iran is a complex modern society that is ready for change. We in Australia can support this process by fostering dialogue and cultural and economic exchanges with Iranian civil society. More positive and constructive policies will create a win-win situation for all.
If the opportunity is lost, the outcomes will be dire for all the players, not just in the region itself, but also in Europe and the United States.
Let us hope that in her discussions with the Iranian government the foreign minister is able to move beyond the question of asylum seekers and seize the opportunity to stimulate a movement away from the failed policies of the past towards a more fruitful – and safer – commitment to dialogue, reconciliation and mutual prosperity. All of our futures might depend on it.