Strategic Challenges for Australia in the Middle East region
By stating that “that the protection of our continent starts well beyond our shores” the protection of our continent and citizens starts well beyond our shores has formed an essentially unbroken line in Australian strategic thinking” (Howard, 2006, p. 5), the former Australian Prime minister acknowledged the importance of distant events for Australia’s interests in an era of globalization. Globalization does not only provide positive effects, in fact, global terrorism, a growing shortage of energy resources, and a higher economic vulnerability to foreign developments are also effects of globalization. The Middle East will remain a key region in the next decades for either of the mentioned negative effects and therefore, Australia’s strategic interests in the Middle East will increase. Given a broader Australian security agenda, determined by “a global power balance, favourable to our interests and to those of our allies; secure sea and air lanes as sinews of peace and prosperity; and a framework of international norms conducive to individual freedom, economic development and liberal democracy” (Howard, 2006, p. 5), events in the Middle East do matter. Therefore, this paper will analyze key strategic challenges Australia will face in the Middle East region. Since these threats are possible threats for Australia’s security interests, this paper will also outline possible options of actions Canberra might have in order to protect its interests in the Middle East and on its broader security agenda.
On a strategic level, the military engagement of the United States alongside with its allies in Iraq created an environment of instability for Iran to assert itself as a regional power. Consequently Teheran’s growing regional ambitions and the ongoing tensions with Israel, the United States and other nations perpetuate the probability of inter-state conflicts and therefore the danger of regional instability remains on a high level (Fattouh, 2007, p. 10). Iran’s strategic challenge is versatile. On the one hand the acquisition of conventional military power gives reason for concern especially for Iran’s neighbouring countries (Mattair, 2007, p. 133). Even though the country still recovers from the long-lasting war with Iraq, it has rebuilt extensive land power capabilities and in order to expand its arsenal of surface-to-air missiles, fighter aircraft, and ground force equipment Teheran has established close armament co-operations with Russia and Belarus (Ripley, 2008). Furthermore, Iran has shown its ability to satisfy the nation’s military needs with indigenous design and production capabilities, demonstrated with the development of the first Iranian air fighter Shafaq (Johnson, 2006). Yet, more worrisome is Iran’s programme to acquire and produce short and intermediate range missiles. In 2008, Teheran launched a number of missiles during military exercises including the domestic developed and produces Shahab 3 intermediate missile with an anticipated range of 1500 – 2000 kilometres Therefore, Iran is theoretically able to threaten objectives throughout the Middle East, including Pakistan, Israel and targets in Southern Europe.
On the other hand, Teheran pursues the acquisition of nuclear technology since more than four decades and Iran’s constant references to the civil usage of this technology becomes blurry given the existence of economically more attractive alternatives and the existing resources of oil and gas in Iran. Hence, it is presumably that Iran “clearly wants a nuclear weapons option to deter the United States from threatening Iranian sovereignty; to prevent a recurrence of the horrific war Iraq started in 1980; and to assert Persian power in a region where Israel, Pakistan, and the United States wield nuclear weapons” (Perkovich, 2005, p. 1). Furthermore, the rise of Iran as a regional power and the US led military intervention in Iraq fuelled Teheran’s perpetuation of its nuclear programme. The prospective of an nuclear armed Iran challenges the international community and even though it is highly unlikely that Iran goes beyond deterrence, the aggressive rhetoric of Mahmoud Ahmadinijad, stating that “occupying regime [Israel] must be wiped off the map” (Nazila, 20.10.2005) leaves disquieting concerns over Iran’s real intentions. In the face of this threat it is not surprisingly that Israel considers the use of pre-emptive force against Iran that may cause a region wide military conflict. Furthermore, a “military strike without the authorization of the UN Security Council would be seen as an act of aggression in violation of the enforcement processes envisioned, but ill-defined, in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran would consider itself free from all restraints to develop nuclear weapons, and much of the developing world would endorse this view. The treaty-based nonproliferation regime would crumble” (Perkovich, 2005, p. 5). In addition, a nuclear Iran may cause a arms race in the Middle East since Sunni led regimes in Saudi Arabia or Egypt may consider Teheran’s nuclear capabilities as a serious threat that needs retaliation abilities. This becomes even more pressing since prospective Iranian retaliation capabilities against the US or Israel may reduce the threshold of the regime in Teheran to deploy its conventional military power against surrounding nations in the Middle East or US troops and its allied forces. Therefore, the “combination of embargoes and sanctions may delay the possession of nuclear weapons, however the underlying motivation of Iran to acquire this technology is not removed” (Wunderle & Briere, 2007, p. 206). Hence the prevention of a nuclear armed Iran with the possibilities of the existing Non-Proliferation possibilities is a key task in the Middle East. On another level, Australia can contribute to the regional stability by advising its allies in the United States and Israel to prevent a hasty or miscalculated pre-emptive strike that inevitable will result in retaliation, regional unrest, or the increase of terrorist attacks.