Australia FM may cancel Iran trip if nuke deal falls apart

Australia FM may cancel Iran trip if nuke deal falls apart

Julie Bishop will likely 'reassess' her travel plans if no agreement struck by April, official says; insists visit to focus on people smuggling

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (screen capture: YouTube/News TvN)
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (screen capture: YouTube/News TvN)

Australia’s foreign minister is likely to cancel her planned trip to Iran in April should nuclear negotiations break down, a senior Australian official said Tuesday.

Julie Bishop, a staunch supporter of Israel, is set to become the West’s second top official to visit the Islamic Republic in recent years, raising concerns in Jerusalem about the West prematurely welcoming the regime back into the family of nations.

In Australia, the visit is seen by some as “extremely significant,” with one Middle East expert saying that Canberra seeks to take advantage of huge economic opportunities a détente with Iran would offer.

But Bishop will only go ahead with her travel plans if the six world powers and Iran have actually reached an agreement by then about Tehran’s rogue nuclear program, a senior Australian official told The Times of Israel Tuesday.

“If the nuclear deal fails, I would expect that we’d reassess the trip,” the senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “From the talks in Geneva currently taking place it’s clear that the two sides are making progress. But there’s still a long way to go.”

Iran and the so-called P5+1 — the US, France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany — have set a March 24 deadline to resolve the disagreement over Tehran’s nuclear program. Israel has been adamant in its rejection of the prospective agreement, which according to media reports would allow Tehran to continue enriching uranium, effectively allowing the country to become a nuclear threshold state, mere months away from being able to break out to a nuclear bomb.

Bishop’s visit to Tehran does not signal a change in Canberra’s position vis-à-vis the nuclear negotiations, the Australian official asserted, adding that Iran must fully satisfy the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program.

“We’re not going to be arguing for sanctions to be lifted in advance of an agreement,” the official said. “Our position is that any deal needs to be sufficiently robust and have enough safeguards so that the international community can be confident that nuclear Iran’s program is peaceful, and that, if they violate the agreement, the international community has enough time to respond.”

The official said Canberra needed to see the agreement before commenting on it, but predicted Australia was unlikely to second-guess a deal if the P5+1 agreed to it.

As opposed to other Western states such as the US or Britain, Australia never cut its diplomatic ties with Iran, “because we always believed in keeping the channels of dialogue open,” the official added.

Officials in Jerusalem are unhappy about Bishop’s planned visit to Tehran but refused to comment on the record since they do not want to jeopardize good relations with Canberra.

Bishop is known for taking stances supporting current Israeli policies; in January 2014 she made headlines when she told The Times of Israel that West Bank settlements should not be called illegal.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, left, with FM Avigdor Liberman in Jerusalem, January 13, 2014 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir)
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, left, with FM Avigdor Liberman in Jerusalem, January 13, 2014 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir)

“Australia is one of Israel’s closest allies and we will certainly find the occasion to discuss Minister Bishop’s visit to Tehran in a professional and discreet manner,” an Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The visit would come a little over a year after then-EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton paid a visit to Tehran, in a show of thawing ties between the West and Iran.

Bishop’s planned April trip has “the enthusiastic backing of the White House,” which hopes it could provide “a conduit for a new constructive dialogue between Washington and Tehran” regarding the fight against the Islamic State, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Monday.

American and Australian officials denied this assertion on Tuesday, saying that Washington has not yet formulated an opinion on the issue.

The paper also quoted an Australian Middle East expert saying that the visit aims to secure a foot in the door for the time after the sanctions on Iran are lifted in the framework of an agreement with the P5+1, knowing that the Islamic Republic could become an “enormous source of income” for Australia.

Bishop’s visit, therefore, is “extremely significant,” according to Amin Saikal, the director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies and a political science professor at the Australian National University. “The signs are very encouraging that they [US and Iran] will sign a political agreement by 31st of March, then she wants to be first cab off the rank among Western allies to visit the country,” he told the paper, using an Australian idiom for being the first in line.

“If there is a comprehensive agreement, Iran is going to open up, and it is going to be a big market for Australia and it is also going to be an enormous source of income for this country including through the participation by Australian companies in a lot of projects.”

But Bishop’s planned visit is not at all focused on the reestablishment of commercial ties, the senior Australian official told The Times of Israel. “We’re not trying to be first in the door, this is not how we do business. If the Iranians reenter the fold, of course we would like to resume normal trade relations, like any other country. But that’s not the focus of the trip. It’s not a hard priority for us right now.”

Rather, the main purpose of the trip is discussing people smuggling, the official said. “Iran is one of biggest source countries of people trying to reach us by boat. We have a fair bit of cooperation with Iranian authorities to stop that and enable their return.”

The foreign minister further intends to discuss Iran’s views on the Islamic State terrorist group. Hundreds of Australian citizens have joined the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria, and Australian military is involved in the international coalition to fight it.

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