Australian FM heads to Tehran but local Jews, Israel publicly unfazed
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Jerusalem is privately unhappy about landmark visit, but doesn't want to harm ties with Canberra

Australian FM heads to Tehran but local Jews, Israel publicly unfazed

Advocacy groups don’t protest Julie Bishop’s historic trip, merely urging her to condemn Iran’s anti-Israel agitation and support for terrorism

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)

Ahead of the Australian foreign minister’s historic visit to Iran on Saturday, several local Jewish and Zionist groups said they hope she will use the trip to clarify the West’s opposition to the regime’s support for terrorism and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

However, despite virtually unanimous skepticism over the tentative nuclear agreement six Western powers struck with the Islamic Republic this month — a deal Israel says jeopardizes its existence and legitimatizes a murderous regime — Australia’s pro-Israel advocacy groups have not loudly protested Julie Bishop’s trailblazing visit.

A staunch supporter of Israel, Bishop will be the second top official from the West to visit the Islamic Republic in recent years, and the first Australian minister to do so in more than a decade. During her trip, Bishop will discuss the nuclear deal, common efforts to defeat the Islamic State terrorist group, and bilateral issues such as the return of Iranians seeking asylum in Australia.

Bishop has “a number of bilateral and multilateral issues to raise with the Iranian government,” Australia’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, Dave Sharma, told The Times of Israel Thursday. “In terms of the nuclear issue, Australia will continue to be the leading nation in terms of sanctions while Iran remains in breach of relevant UN Security Council resolutions.”

Some observers fear that the visit’s high symbolic value signals the West’s premature welcoming of the regime back into the family of nations, but neither the Israeli government nor Australia’s pro-Israel groups have vocally opposed Bishop’s plan.

“I look forward to visiting Iran on 18 April to discuss the nuclear issue and other important bilateral and regional issues with Foreign Minister [Javad] Zarif and other Iranian leaders,” Bishop said in a statement earlier this month. She welcomed the framework deal the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany struck with Iran in Lausanne, calling it “an important step towards a final agreement, which will address international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.”

The president of Australia’s Zionist Federation, Danny Lamm, is on record as a staunch critic of the Iran deal: “Let us not forget that Iran still sponsors terror, not only by financially helping Hamas… but by providing logistical support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Assad’s regime in Syria,” he said last week, according to the Australian Jewish News.

Still, Lamm sounded unperturbed by Bishop’s visit to Tehran. “Julie Bishop has been and is a strong supporter of the State of Israel. I’ve no doubt that whatever matters she concludes on her trip to Iran will include due consideration for Israel and her people,” Lamm told The Times of Israel.

The president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Robert M. Goot, was also dissatisfied with the Iran agreement, saying in a statement last week that Jerusalem’s “legitimate concerns” need to be taken seriously, “especially as the Iranian regime continues its calls for Israel’s elimination and grossly anti-Semitic rhetoric.”

On Thursday, Goot told The Times of Israel he hopes Bishop will use her Tehran trip “to enunciate Australia’s opposition to Iranian-sponsored terrorism, the regime’s frequent calls for the elimination of Israel, its staging of grotesque public forums to mock and deny the Holocaust, and the shocking human rights abuses it perpetrates.”

The Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, which was also highly critical of the nuclear deal, said that, with the knowledge of Bishop’s “principled views,” the group hopes that in Tehran she will voice “her disapproval in the strongest terms possible of the Iranian leadership’s continued calls for the destruction of Israel, its promotion of terrorism and its fanatical propagation of antisemitism.”

In a statement, the group asked the foreign minister to “stress the importance of the Iranian leadership acknowledging Israel’s right to exist as part of any final agreement.” It is also imperative, the statement continued, that Bishop tell her Iranian hosts that “the West is willing and able to defend its values and interests, and that no nuclear weaponization by Iran is acceptable under any circumstances.”

Bishop understands well that the implications of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions “are so far-reaching, and the consequences of a bad, ineffective deal so dire — reviving the economy and strength of a radical Islamist regime and making it even more threatening to its neighbors behind its nuclear shield — that it’s crucial for our own national interest that any deal signed deprives Teheran of any path to a nuclear capability or bomb,” the statement concluded.

Michael Danby, a Jewish-Australian member of parliament, said Bishop should ask her Iranian hosts about the meaning of their persistent threats to eliminate Israel.

Late in March, a senior Iranian general said Israel’s eradication was “non-negotiable,” Danby recalled. “It is these persistent threats to destroy a sovereign state of eight million people that undermine belief in Western — including Australian — public opinion, that Iran’s nuclear program has a peaceful intent.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office are unhappy about Bishop’s planned visit to Tehran. But officials refuse to say so on the record, since they do not want to jeopardize good relations with Canberra. Rather than publicly antagonizing Canberra, Jerusalem will express its disapproval through diplomatic channels, a senior official told The Times of Israel.

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

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.

Some Australians see Bishop’s upcoming Iran trip 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.

“If there is a comprehensive [nuclear] 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,” Amin Saikal, the director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies and a political science professor at the Australian National University, said in February, when plans for Bishop’s trip became public.

But Bishop’s visit is not at all focused on the reestablishment of commercial ties, a senior Australian official told The Times of Israel at the time. “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 to discuss people-smuggling, the official said. “Iran is one of the 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.”

Bishop said this week that she plans to discuss with her Iranian counterpart the possible return of Iranian citizens whose asylum requests have been rejected. About 30 percent of illegal asylum seekers in Australia are from Iran but so far, Tehran has been refusing to accept back any of its nationals currently hoping for a new life Down Under. “It is an ongoing conversation I have been having with Foreign Minister Zarif for some time. One of the reasons I will be in Iran is to progress the discussion I’ve had up to date,” she said, according to the Australian newspaper.

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

Australia and Iran share “a common purpose” in building up Iraqi forces confronting the Islamic State, Bishop said Tuesday. “Iran is deeply involved in… defeating ISIL, so it’s an opportunity to discuss our collective interest in countering this form of particularly violent and brutal terrorism.”

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.

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