FRESH AIR

Australia once again the odd one out on Iran

Jan 25, 2023 | Oved Lobel

(Image: Flickr)
(Image: Flickr)

On January 23, the US, UK and European Union announced coordinated sanctions targeting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other Iranian regime elements for domestic human rights abuses, adding dozens of additional individuals and entities to the dozens already designated since protests began in September. Two weeks earlier, Canada also announced yet another tranche of sanctions, as all four governments work in tandem to progressively squeeze the Iranian regime over its murderous internal repression as well as its participation in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Glaringly absent from this endeavour in both rhetoric and action is the Australian Government.

It took Australia months to even condemn Iran for its involvement in Ukraine, long after its allies had condemned and sanctioned the regime for its role. Finally, on Dec. 10, Australia sanctioned six Iranian individuals and two entities for both humans rights abuses and the provision of drones to Russia to attack Ukraine. With February rapidly approaching, Australia has taken no further action.

While its allies have collectively sanctioned a myriad of entities and individuals and will undoubtedly continue to heap pressure on Iran in a coordinated fashion, Australia had to be pressured and shamed into a grand total of eight new designations, and in total isolation from the US, UK, Canada and EU. Needless to say, there are more than eight Iranian individuals and entities liable to be sanctioned under Australia’s Magnitsky laws.

This phenomenon is especially strange given the vehement denunciation of the regime for its execution of protesters by Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, who nonetheless implied no punishment would be forthcoming, and instead asserted Australia would “continue to advocate for Iranians facing the death penalty for exercising their right to protest.”

In addition to sanctions for human rights abuses and participation in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the IRGC also merits sanctions for targeting Australian organisations and universities in cyberattacks, something AIJAC has covered since 2018 and recently confirmed by the Australian Signals Directorate. Shadow Minister for Cyber Security and Countering Foreign Interference, Liberal Senator James Paterson, has called for targeted sanctions for these cyberattacks, recently tweeting “The Iranian government is a prime candidate for Australia’s first-ever use of the cyber component of our Magnitsky sanctions regime.”

The one potential explanation for Australian reticence about coordinating with allies in punishing Iran is the possibility that one or more Australian hostages are being held by the regime and the Government doesn’t want to jeopardise their well-being or behind-the-scenes negotiations for their release.

Even if this hypothetical is correct, however, it is still incumbent on the Government to explain why Australia alone would link the issue of hostages and sanctions when other countries with citizens held by Iran have refused such linkage. Furthermore, hostage situations are almost universally resolved via prisoner swaps – including the case of Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who was traded for three IRGC terrorists in November 2020 –  regardless of any other tensions or policies. A stronger stand on Iran by Australia would not and should not be linked to the issue of hostage swaps. If the Europeans and Americans are willing to progressively escalate sanctions despite hostages held in Iran, there is no reason for Australia not to join them.

It isn’t simply targeted sanctions where Australia has opted for an independent foreign policy of inaction. There are ongoing conversations in Canada, the UK and EU on listing the IRGC as a terrorist organisation, on top of the other sweeping measures being imposed by all of them. There are also multi-party calls in Federal Parliament for Australia to do the same, including from the Teals, Greens and Liberals.

The only response from the Government – indeed, what appears to be one of the only public mentions of the IRGC as a group by the Government, if not the only one – has come from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), which told the Australian that “under our UN and autonomous sanctions, Australia has imposed targeted sanctions on the IRGC as a whole since 2012, as well as a number of IRGC-linked persons and entities.” This is both true and entirely irrelevant.

The IRGC is on Australia’s Consolidated List of sanctions, a position it shares with nearly every other terrorist organisation listed under Australia’s Criminal Code. Any argument that there’s no need for an organisation to be listed under the Criminal Code because it’s already included in the Consolidated List is therefore self-evidently false. Unless, of course, DFAT is implying that listing under the Criminal Code is purely symbolic and grants the Government no further powers against any designated organisation, in which case there is even less of an argument not to list the IRGC as an important symbolic gesture to Iranians and other concerned Australians in and out of Government calling for listing.

Aside from sanctions and discussions over listing the IRGC, the Government also seems to inhabit a parallel reality when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). More than a month after the US declared that diplomacy with Iran over the JCPOA was being shelved indefinitely due to the latter’s intransigence, human rights abuses and participation in the war in Ukraine, Foreign Minister Penny Wong said, “We know that the JCPOA has limitations but it remains the best available option to ensure Iran never develops a nuclear weapon. It is vital that a diplomatic solution is found that sees all parties return to the JCPOA.”

Notably, when the UK and EU finally joined the US in sanctioning Iran for providing drones to Russia in late October, one of the justifications was that the transfers violated UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which codified the JCPOA. If the Government actually supported the JCPOA, and thus Resolution 2231, why did it wait approximately two months to even mention the violation, much less impose sanctions?

On Feb. 1, Australians will find out whether the Government’s inaction is simply due to bureaucracy or whether it is because the Government has very consciously opted to do nothing, now or in the future. That day is the deadline for the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee to report on its conclusions from last year’s inquiry into human rights implications of recent violence in Iran.

Approximately 400 submissions were made to the inquiry by various individuals as well as communal and international organisations. A large proportion of these submissions, including AIJAC’s, shared at least two recommendations: listing the IRGC under the Criminal Code and drastically expanding autonomous sanctions against Iranian individuals and entities. If, in response to the Committee’s report, the Government still fails to take any additional action, then at least Australians can stop holding their breath and just accept, with appropriate dismay, the moral and strategic shortcomings underlying the Government’s Iran policy.

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