Acting on Iran has painful shades of joining the US in Iraq

Here’s a word of advice to Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Unless he wants to risk a smudge on his reputation of the sort that accompanies John Howard to this day: don’t get involved in conflict with Iran beyond limited naval engagement in a Gulf peace-keeping role.

Illustration: Simon BoschCredit:

When we read that Canberra is open to joining an international effort to ratchet up pressure on Iran "in consultation with our allies and partners", this invites disquieting questions.

If Morrison is talking about involvement in a "global coalition", as described by the hawkish US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, then he might remind himself of what happened when Australia last lent itself to a so-called "Coalition of the Willing".

That was 17 years ago in 2002 when John Howard – as one of the "three amigos" with Britain's Tony Blair and Spain's Jose Maria Aznar – joined George W. Bush in promoting a disastrous invasion of Iraq.

Only World War II, which absorbed one-third of American GDP, or $4 trillion in today's dollars, has cost more than the Iraq debacle at $1 trillion (a total $2 trillion if Afghanistan is included).

These are the measurable costs in people, materiel and nation building. Incalculable are the ongoing costs of the destabilisation of the entire Middle East, and the empowerment of Iran.

A pilot speaks to a crew member by an F/A-18 fighter jet on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea. Donald Trump has threatened Iran with ‘obliteration’.Credit:AP

Iran emerged as the principal beneficiary of the chaos that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein and his thuggish regime.

It is at least arguable that an Iran, deprived of an arc of Shia influence that stretches to the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, would have been constrained by a regional power balance.

Now, that buffer is gone, and Iran and its Sunni adversaries, led by a newly assertive (until the shooting starts) Saudi Arabia, are colliding in a highly volatile environment in which one overreaction could lead to a blazing regional conflict.

Ilan Goldenberg in the June issue of Foreign Affairs describes a diabolical range of challenges.

"Iran," Goldenberg writes, "can use proxy forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen to attack the United States and its partners. It has an arsenal of ballistic missiles that can target US bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

"Its mines and land-based anti-ship missiles can wreak havoc in the Strait of Hormuz and drive up global oil prices. Iran has the capacity to shut down a significant proportion of Saudi oil production with aggressive sabotage or cyberattacks."

In a multi-year assignment in the Middle East I reported the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88); the first Gulf War (1990-1991), in which the US and its allies routed the Iraqi military; and the invasion of Iraq (2003). If I learned anything from those experiences it is that wars are easier to start than to finish.

Morrison is surrounded by a weak national security team. The national security committee of cabinet does not include one individual with credible security experience.

Newly appointed Defence Minister Linda Reynolds reached the rank of brigadier in the army reserve. She appears to have been involved mostly in logistics.

Whatever deliberations Morrison and his advisers undertake about the extent to which Australia becomes involved in a campaign to exert pressure on Iran, they would be advised to read John Howard’s speech to Parliament on February 4, 2003, in which he makes the case for Australia's rush to war in Iraq.

This is a cautionary tale for any politician.

Space does not permit a description of anything but a small sample of errors of fact and judgment. However, two stand out. Howard asserted that Iraq's biological and chemicals weapons programs were "more advanced" than before the Gulf War of 1990-91. He also claimed Iraq was "reconstituting" its nuclear weapons program.

Neither of these assertions was true.

Howard said something else in that speech that bears repeating.

"The crucial long-term value of the US Alliance should always be a factor in major national security decisions taken by Australia."

In other words, preservation of the US alliance via regular insurance payments should be paramount, in Howard's view.

Morrison might remind himself that Canada's then-prime minister, Jean Chretien, kept his country out of the Iraq war. The sky did not subsequently fall in on Ottawa.

All this is relevant today given that Morrison found himself last week in the presence over dinner of the two most hawkish members of the Trump administration. Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton both advocated air strikes against Iranian targets in retaliation for suspected Iranian attacks on gulf oil facilities before the President, at the 11th hour, called off military action.

Bolton has been an intemperate advocate of regime change in Tehran. In an interview with The Australian newspaper, Pompeo said Australia had a key role in a "global coalition". What that means is anyone's guess.

Morrison would be well advised not to be suckered into joining a counter-punch against Iran. His response to requests for any significant Australian military involvement should be emphatically: No.

Tony Walker is a regular columnist and a former Middle East correspondent for The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Financial Times.

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