Australia to play key role as Iran broker with Julie Bishop to visit Tehran

Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop

Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop

Julie Bishop is to become the first senior Australian government figure to visit Iran in more than a decade and only the second senior Western leader over that same period, when she travels to Tehran in April.

The trip is being viewed as a potential game-changer in the fight against the Sunni-extremist Islamic State organization, but it could also help unlock lucrative economic opportunities for Australia – reviving a once booming trade in education, wheat, meat, and other areas.

It is understood the rare visit by a senior US-aligned government figure has received the enthusiastic backing of the White House, which hopes Australia might provide a conduit for a new constructive dialogue between Washington and Tehran given the common enemy currently rampaging through Iraq, Syria, and now Libya.

It follows a specific invitation by the country’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The Australian Foreign Minister’s Middle East foray will take place in April, less than two months before the US and Iran hit a self-imposed deadline for a comprehensive nuclear energy deal.

That follows a preliminary US-Iranian “political” agreement which is under discussion amid signs of a breakthrough recently allowing a March 31 deadline to be met.

Ms Bishop’s Middle East foray will also take in other capitals and is likely to include Baghdad and the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh.

Australia currently has around 600 military personnel and several warplanes committed to the US-led international coalition attempting to drive IS back from vast swathes of Iraq and Syria.

The US has been engaged in protracted talks with the hardline Shiite government in Tehran at foreign minister level in a bid to restrict Iran’s fledgling nuclear industry to strictly peaceful purposes, and therefore avert a possible outbreak of war between Iran and its mortal enemy, Israel.

That process is opposed by the conservative Netanyahu government in Jerusalem, which views Iran with maximum suspicion and has made clear its view that any concession to allow Tehran to use and develop nuclear technology would be viewed as a short step away from a nuclear armed Iran.

The last Australian foreign affairs minister to visit Tehran was Alexander Downer in 2003. So closed off has Iran been since the time of the erratic hardline former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the only other senior official to Western official to visit over the last decade was UN High Representative Catherine Ashton who went there a year ago.

The Australian National University’s Amin Saikal sad the proposed visit by Ms Bishop was “extremely significant”.

“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 amongst Western allies to visit the country,” Professor Saikal said.

“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.”

Professor Saikal said it was a a little-known fact that two-way trade had been quite high in the 1990s with some 900 Iranian students undertaking Iranian government scholarships in Australia with their families as well.

“As a result, there is a considerable alumni in Iran and Australia is well regarded,” he said.

Unlike the US, Canada, and Britain, Australia has maintained diplomatic relations with Tehran, positioning this country well if a peaceful nuclear energy industry is agreed on and harsh trade sanctions are lifted.

By The Sidney Morning Herald