The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd’s, confirmation that the Federal Government blocked three shipments of cargo to Iran has raised questions about what the ships contained. So far, Mr Rudd has refused to comment on the details of the intervention.
Defence Minister John Faulkner stopped the shipments under the Weapons of Mass Destruction Act, prompting speculation that the contents could be used in Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran has been accused by western countries of developing or wanting to develop nuclear weapons. However, Iran says that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. The problem is, even if Iran’s claim is true, a nuclear energy based on high grade uranium can be easily converted into a weapons-grade uranium and hence a nuclear weapons program.
Fears that Iran intends to develop such a program have been heightened by its refusal to accept low-grade uranium from overseas in exchange for closing down its enrichment plants. This has been exacerbated by the fiery rhetoric of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in particular his threat to ‘wipe off the map’ Israel.
Australia’s intervention comes as part of what it continues to see as its international obligation to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). While Iran is widely perceived to be a potential nuclear threat, there continues to be no evidence that it has embarked on a nuclear weapons program. This is despite Mr Rudd saying that ‘its current nuclear weapons program’ posed a risk to global peace.
It is convention that political leaders do not discuss active security or intelligence matters, so the secrecy around this intervention in unsurprising. However, given the ambiguity around Iran’s existing capacity and the factual errors concerning the reason for invading Iraq, Mr Rudd could have been more forthcoming.
Almost as much a concern as its perceived nuclear enrichment program, there is also international concern over Iran’s development of its medium-range missile capability. Missiles, parts for missiles or guidance systems could also fall under the WMD mandate and hence be open to interception. None of this, however, has been discussed by Mr Rudd, even though such action would be uncontroversial.
In the shadowy world of security and intelligence what is known as certainty, even by governments, is not always clear to them. What is known by the public is very much a lesser and later version of what governments know, believe they know, or claim they know.
Australia’s action against Iran could have been a legitimate act to block the supply of high grade uranium or equipment intended to enrich uranium, or possibly missiles or their components. Alternatively, it could simply have been a more general act as a part of a broader international, if US-led, effort to apply pressure on Iran.
Alleged possession of WMDs were used as the rationale for the invasion of Iraq, even though they were based on the flimsiest of evidence and were subsequently found to be untrue.
Further, no action has been taken, least by Australia, against states that admit to possessing nuclear weapons but which are not signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, including Israel, India and Pakistan. In this, there is a lack of consistency around Australia’s international concerns.
Perhaps Iran is developing or wants to develop a nuclear weapons capacity and there is little doubt that, if this was true, it would be deeply troubling. But perhaps, like Iraq, its protestations of denial are true.
Western governments have made threatening noises about Iran, on and off, for years, and may be keeping open the option of intervention. As with Iraq prior to that invasion, acts such as that of Australia in stopping shipping could be intended to limit Iran’s capacity to respond.
To that end, while secrecy around security and intelligence matters is to be respected, so too is some degree of transparency and accountability about what our government does and why it does it.