Australia is preparing to join US and UK military operations against Iran — but Scott Morrison says this is not like last time

Australian Navy sailors pay respect for fallen comrades in Afghanistan and the Middle East (Photo by Daniel Munoz, Getty Images)
  • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed he is in conversation with both his US and the UK counterparts about Australia beginning military patrols in the Middle Eastern Gulf of Oman.
  • It comes as tensions with Iran endanger the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic shipping route that is important in the global supply of oil.
  • The US and the UK are both now urging Australia to support operations. Similarly, the three nations spearheaded George W. Bush’s ‘Coalition of the Willing’ to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps with that in mind, Morrison, made it clear that this potential Iran operation would be strictly related to keeping shipping channels open.

Australia could be again following the United States and the United Kingdom into a Middle East military intervention, 16 years on from the Iraq invasion, as tensions with Iran flare.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has given the clearest indication yet that Australia will intervene in the strategic Gulf of Hormuz, saying he was in discussions with allies.

READ MORE: How the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow stretch of water where ships transport $1.2 billion worth of oil every day, is at the heart of spiralling tensions with Iran

“I spoke to Boris Johnson last night and indicated to him that we were looking very carefully at our participation in this initiative which we would see as an international, multinational initiative,” Morrison told media in Townsville on Thursday.

“We’ve engaged with both the United States and the United Kingdom in understanding what role Australia could play here.”

Morrison’s insistence that this was not a unilateral American mission seemed to be a deliberate attempt to distance this operation in Iran from the controversial Afghanistan and Iraq wars — Australia being led into both by the US.

Relations between Iran and the West have become fierce in recent months after two oil tankers were attacked in the Strait, a vital oil shipping lane. The US was quick to blame Iran — a charge its government has repeatedly denied.

Since then, there have been a series of scuffles. Iran last month seized a UK tanker which remains detained, while both the US and Iran have been shooting down each other’s drones.

For the US, however, there’s much more at stake than just shipping lanes.

Soon after entering the White House, Trump tore up Obama’s Iran Deal — an agreement in which the US promised to drop economic sanctions in return for Iran walking away from its nuclear weapons program. US foreign policy towards it has since grown increasingly antagonistic.

Morrison reiterated however that any Australian help in the region was solely aimed at keeping transport lanes open.

“This is about safe shipping lanes and ensuring that we can restore at least some stability to what is a very unstable part of the world at the moment,” he said.

“This should be clearly divorced from the broader issues that relate to Iran and the (Iran deal). That’s a separate issue.”

Morrison’s apparent support for military patrols unsurprisingly comes just days after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Australia to shore up support for such an operation.

“I am very confident that we will have a global coalition that … reduces the risk of conflict in the region and enables the freedom of navigation,” Pompeo said on Sunday.

Pompeo though has been one of the loudest opponents to Iran more broadly, long before any incident in the Strait of Hormuz. He used his first major policy speech last year to spearhead the campaign against Iran, promising to impose “the strongest sanctions in history” on the country.

Similarly, White House National Security Adviser John Bolton — the architect of the Iraq War — has been feverishly advocating for regime change in Iran for years, penning a New York Times opinion piece in 2015 titled, ‘To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran’.

Both were at the table when Morrison dined with Trump at the G20 summit.

Iran will no doubt form part of the conversation again when Morrison attends a US State dinner — only the second held by Trump for a foreign leader — at the White House in September.

Morrison will need to be prepared to reject America’s charm to avoid escalating Australia’s involvement in the region.

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