14 March 2018

As relations with North Korea thaw, Iran poses a bigger threat

14 March 2018, from an article by Colin Rubenstein, executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council:

An edited version of this article appeared in The Age, and on the websites of the Sydney Morning Herald and Canberra Times.

Iran seems ever more confident it will achieve its hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East now it controls four capitals.
Photo: AFP

Comments made by US President Donald Trump  ...highlighted the fact that while the threat to world peace posed by North Korea has dominated the headlines in recent months, Mr Trump is  determinedly focussed at least as much on another rogue state, which probably poses an even greater threat in the longer term – Iran.

... while North Korea threatens violence, Iran is already instigating or provoking it on considerable scale – in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen and, recently, by flying a drone into Israel from Syria, prompting Israeli reprisals. In fact, most of Israel’s top military analysts now say it is only matter of time before further violence, probably on a much larger scale, develops between Israel and Iran.

Iran appears ever more confident it will achieve its hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East now that it not only controls four capitals – Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad and Sana’a – but is very close to completing its long-sought land corridor, across Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean, facilitating its threat to Israel.

There seems little question the current situation is directly linked to the Iranian nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in 2015 between Iran and the “P5+1” world powers. That agreement was portrayed as stopping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. Today, not only is it clear that the JCPOA has deep flaws that will likely prevent it achieving that goal, it has actually clearly helped facilitate other Iranian bad behaviours.

Meanwhile, the JCPOA has not stopped Iran from working full steam ahead on advanced centrifuges, which will essentially bring Iran’s nuclear breakout time to just weeks, and also launching no fewer than 23 ballistic missile tests. The latter violates the UN Security Council Resolution that implemented the JCPOA, if not the agreement itself. Yet by year eight of the JCPOA, Iran is free to buy and sell ballistic missiles – the key nuclear weapons delivery system, and by year 10 to 12 of the deal, (2025-27), all major restrictions on Iran fade away, giving Iran a green light to build all the nuclear infrastructure it needs for a complete nuclear weapons arsenal.

The JCPOA provided Iran with a huge influx of funds – up to US$150 billion. It is becoming clear that, rather than improving the lives of Iran’s civilians, that money has been used to bolster Iran’s military; fund the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) responsible for spreading the revolution through the region by destabilising neighbours and directing terrorism and militias; and directly funding terror groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. This follows several years of the Obama Administration tolerating Iran’s rogue actions for fear of jeopardising the JCPOA.

Both the money and the free hand granted over this period were likely essential to the dangerous entrenchment of Iran’s position in Syria – and the strong risk of war with Israel this entails.

President Trump has announced he will refuse to re-certify the national security value of the JCPOA to Congress in May. This means the US Congress has until May 12 to reassess, reform and re-issue the terms of the deal. If nothing happens by then, the likelihood is that the US will simply withdraw, with unpredictable results.

Until then, the US is seeking partners from among its allies, likely including Australia, to address the problems with the JCPOA – especially the sunset clauses and Iran’s defiant missiles tests – and to also put in place comprehensive measures to begin to address Iranian regional aggression and other rogue behaviour. This may well entail major new non-nuclear sanctions regarding Iranian terrorism, cyber attacks and human rights abuses, as well as international agreement on how to effectively deter further missile tests.

Iran’s aggression and the possibility of the US withdrawing from the deal, and thus potentially placing sanctions on any companies dealing with it, are not the only issue that should concern Iran’s potential trading partners. Corruption and illicit finance, including widespread counterfeiting, and funding of terrorism, are so prevalent in Iran’s economy that they could potentially infect any country that invests in the Islamic Republic.

These issues almost certainly will have been raised with allies including Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during his late February US visit. It is in Australia’s core national interests to review our stance to ensure we are constructive and proactive in tackling the extremely serious Iranian problem.

12 March 2018

Voters reject Labor's push for Palestinian state

From The Australian, March 13, 2018, by Simon Benson:

Bob Carr: "Why would you go out of your way to take a bit of sacred Chinese political scripture and taunt and mock it."
Carr: leading agitator in mindless Israel-bashing

Federal Labor is at risk of alienating its support base over the party’s pursuit of Palestinian statehood ahead of its national conference, with a majority of its own voters rejecting the move without the Palestinian Authority striking a peace deal with Israel.

With several state Labor branch¬es last year adopting a platform of recognising a Palestinian state as a means of pursuing a two-state solution after 60 years of conflict, the policy is now likely to be adopted at the national conference in July, which would then become binding on a federal Labor government.

However, a poll conducted by research firm YouGov Galaxy has found that a majority of Labor voters in Australia support recognition of a Palestinian state only if a peace agreement can be reached.  


Almost as many Labor voters also support a position of never recognising a Palestinian state as those who favour immediate recognition with or without peace.

The Labor position on Palestinian recognition appears further at odds with the wider electorate, with 52 per cent of all voters backing the view that either some or all of the criticism of Israel is motivated by antisemitism.

The poll ...revealed that only 13 per cent of Australians across all voting preferences believed Australia should recognise a Palestinian state immediately with or without a peace deal.

The same number, however, either didn’t believe a Palestinian state should ever be given recognition or could be recognised only when Palestinian groups, most of which do not recognise Israel’s right to exist, renounced violence.

The largest number, 25 per cent, agreed that recognition could come only if and when Palestinians reached a peace agreement with Israel.

The poll, however, revealed that the question was a fringe issue for a greater percentage of both Labor and Coalition supporters, with more than a third not expressing an opinion on the issue.

...YouGov Galaxy, a subsidiary of UK pollsters YouGov, is widely respected in testing public opinion and is often engaged by the left for campaign polling.

Surprisingly, the poll of 1205 voters across all demographics showed that a majority of Labor voters also backed the US-supported position of moving Israel’s capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — which Palestinians also lay claim to as their capital.

...Only 7 per cent of voters believed the greatest obstacle to peace was Israeli settlements, with three times as many claiming it was Palestinian rejection of Israel’s right to exist.

However, 44 per cent of voters expressed no opinion.

Australia must not be duped into softening its stance on Iran

From The Australian, March 2, 2018, by Mark Dubowitz ,chief executive, and Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice-president, of the Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defence of Democracies:

Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull at the White House last week
Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull at the White House last week

China and North Korea topped the list of mutual security concerns last week when Malcolm Turnbull met US President Donald Trump in Washington.

The meetings were widely viewed as positive and productive.

But while Asian security policies appear to be aligned, the question of Iran lingers.

Before the Trump presidency, Canberra’s Iran policy was in line with the Obama administration’s rosy outlook on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The Trump administration is significantly less sanguine about the deal, which soon will relax restrictions on arms purchases, missile testing and, with the looming expiration of key restrictions, eventually Iran’s nuclear ambitions as well.

Whatever the Prime Minister or Foreign Minister Julie Bishop think of Trump’s unconventional presidency, they will soon realise that Trump’s perspective on Iran is more in line with decades of conventional US foreign policy than the last three years under Obama, which were an anomaly.

Trump is trying to address the fatal flaws of the nuclear deal and deter Iran’s aggression across the Middle East. This includes Iran’s support for terrorist proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as Shi’ite militias in Syria and Iraq, not to mention the Houthis in Yemen and the murderous dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The Obama policy was to avert America’s gaze. Trump, by contrast, is in the early stages of devising a policy to ensure that this aggression does not go unchecked.

The White House also is retooling US policy to address the regime’s brutal repression of dissent at home.

Of course, Australia will be tempted by all of the business deals that Iran is dangling.

It is dollar signs that European and Asian nations see when they relax their restrictions on the Islamic Republic. In fact, this was the underlying strategy of the JCPOA — normalisation through commerce.

But the Turnbull government must understand that this commerce comes at great risk.

Iran is not normalising. It has not addressed the rampant money-laundering issues that pervade all sectors of its economy.

This is compounded by systemic financial corruption throughout Iran’s government bodies.

In fact, corruption and illicit finance are intrinsic to Iran’s economy. Iran’s poor rankings on a wide range of corruption and compliance indexes underscore this point. The Islamic Republic’s legal system contains significant carve-outs for governmental discretion, under the dubious pretext of “national security”.

Huge sums of money flow to the business empires of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the Supreme Leader. His conglomerate of companies and foundations, built through the expropriation of Iranian private property, is valued at more than $200 billion.

The IRGC, which controls as much as one-third of Iran’s economy, provides billions of dollars to its extraterritorial fighting squad, known as the Quds Force.

The Quds Force also produces hundreds of millions of dollars in counterfeit money using European technology to fund its illicit activities.

The US has long proscribed the group as a terrorist organisation for its support for a wide range of bad actors across the Middle East.

Part of the problem is that Iran’s deceptive terrorism financing laws don’t apply to the terrorist organisations it bankrolls, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

In fact, Tehran carves out exemptions for them under the pretence that they attempt “to end foreign occupation, colonialism and racism”.

This is unacceptable to international anti-money laundering and illicit finance watchdogs such as the Financial Action Task Force, which just last week kept Iran on its blacklist.

While FATF suspended its countermeasures to afford Iran the opportunity to address the problem, it calls on financial institutions to apply “enhanced due diligence” with Iranian counterparts and cautions that doing business with Iran carries serious risk of exposure to terror finance.

If that doesn’t convince Australian companies from investing in Iran, perhaps the new Trump Iran policy will. By May 12, if there is no agreement between the US and the Europeans to plug the holes in the JCPOA, Trump has threatened to “tear up” the deal.

Whether the nuclear agreement is fixed or nixed, US policy will remain focused on deterring companies that contravene existing US sanctions designed to prevent Iran from funding terrorist organisations, developing its missile program, repressing its citizens and wreaking havoc in the Middle East.

In the meantime, Iran also remains designated under section 311 of the USA Patriot Act as a jurisdiction of money-laundering concern. Former US acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence Adam Szubin stated that if foreign firms ran afoul of US sanctions regulations, they would be “risking the most draconian sanctions in our toolkit, and that governs not just US persons but actors all around the world”.

Australia remains a vital US ally. Trump and Turnbull have affirmed this. And new Asia policies will underscore it, too. The challenges of North Korea and China loom large. But much work needs to be done on the Iran front. As Washington works to isolate the Iranian regime for a wide range of malign behaviour, Canberra should follow suit.

06 March 2018

Israel and Australia counter-terrorism - looking out for your mates

From the The Strategist (Australian Strategic Policy Institute), March 6, 2018, by Anthony Bergin, senior analyst at ASPI and senior research fellow at the ANU’s National Security College:

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently revealed that Israeli intelligence had shared information with our security agencies that foiled an Islamic State plot to blow up an Etihad flight from Sydney last July.

Police arrested two brothers, Khaled Khayat and Mahmoud Khayat, and charged them with plotting to bring down the jet. They’re now before the courts accused of trying to smuggle an improvised explosive device hidden inside a meat grinder onto the plane. The attempt was aborted before they reached airport screening (the device was too heavy to pass through check-in).

The plot had been orchestrated by a senior commander of the Islamic State based in Syria, alarming our security agencies by demonstrating the ability of homegrown jihadis to access technical planning directly from terrorists in the Middle East. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has publicly thanked Israeli authorities for the intelligence tip off. He pointed out that Israel has an ‘enormous capacity’ within its intelligence community and it’s an ‘important relationship with ASIO and the Australian Federal Police’.

During his visit to Australia last February, Netanyahu pointed out that both states had ‘superb intelligence services’ that could be better if they worked more closely together to counter violent Islamist extremism.

Israeli intelligence is now taking a more global approach. It’s part of the international effort to fight radical Islamist terror, with Israeli intelligence bodies having ‘tightened coordination with counterparts in friendly countries in recent years’.

Last May, a storm arose after it was reported that President Donald Trump had revealed in a conversation with the Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador to the US details of Israeli warnings regarding a plan by Islamic State to blow up passenger jets flying to Europe using laptop bombs.

In January this year, Prime Minister Netanyahu told a group of ambassadors from NATO member states that Israel’s intelligence services had provided information that had thwarted several dozen major terrorist attacks, many of them in Europe. Many could have been the worst kind of mass attacks because they involved threats to civilian aviation, he said.

One of the main challenges our intelligence agencies face is working with fragments of information and trying to assemble a picture of what might happen. In the battle against global jihadism, it’s good to know that along with our core Five Eyes intelligence partners (Britain, the United States, Canada and New Zealand), Israel is increasingly being consulted on terrorism intelligence. Last November Israel and NATO, for example, signed an agreement on protecting classified information to expand intelligence sharing.

Israel plays a pivotal role in Middle East intelligence. We have good information on Islamist extremist groups in Asia that Israel would find of interest. It’s reasonable to assume that Australia and Israel security agencies have been working hard to build trust after the events of eight years ago. At that time, we expelled an Israeli intelligence officer in response to Israel forging Australian passports that were used in the assassination of a Hamas leader.

Last February we had the first visit of a sitting Israeli prime minister to Australia. And last October Malcolm Turnbull made the first visit of a sitting Australian prime minister to Israel since 2000. As a result, we’ve pursued closer ties to Israel through a memorandum of understanding on defence industry cooperation. Our respective defence officials will hold annual discussions on strategic and security priorities.

Consideration might be given in the near future to having a regular defence ministerial-level dialogue and undertaking a small-scale joint Australia–Israel military exercise in an area of mutual interest.

At a time when the cyber threat is growing, this year Australia and Israel will develop closer cooperation in cybersecurity by convening a bilateral cyber dialogue. We can learn lessons from the Israeli cybersecurity success story, particularly in start-ups and skills development. Last year, for example, Israel and the US formed a bilateral cyber security working group.

The intelligence cooperation we received from Israel in rolling up last year’s complex Sydney bomb plot continues a tradition of looking out for your mates, highlighted at last year’s centenary commemorations of the Light Horse’s military campaign in Palestine in Be’er Sheva and ASPI’s own strategic dialogue with Israel’s Begin-Sadat Centre.

21 December 2017

Zentai evades justice

Hungarian-born Karoly (Charles) Zentai, is accused of detaining and beating to death Peter Balasz, an 18-year-old Jewish youth, and throwing his body in the Danube River in Nazi-occupied Budapest in November 1944.
In 2012, Australia’s High Court ruled that the Australian government could not order Zentai's extradition to Hungary to face a criminal trial, because the offence of "war crime" did not exist under Hungary's laws in 1944. The decision was widely criticized as a triumph of narrow legalism over substantive justice. Dissenting judge Dyson Heydon said that the Court’s decision was an "extremely technical one", given that Zentai was wanted for "beating a Jew to death in Budapest in 1944".
A 2006 US-government commissioned report accused Australia of having "an ambivalent" attitude to hunting Nazi war criminals , and a "lack of the requisite political will". The Zentai case confirms this assessment. Zentai died in Western Australia on 13 December 2017, without ever facing trial.
No accused Nazi war criminal has ever been punished in Australia. The US, Canada and the UK all have a far better record than Australia in bringing war criminals to justice, extraditing them and stripping them of citizenship.
Over the years Australia has accepted as citizens accused war criminals not only from World War II but also from the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Cambodia. They blend in seamlessly with the rest of Australian society. Exploiting our tolerance and naivety, they walk freely among us and our children.
Forgiveness can be a powerful healing sentiment in the appropriate circumstances, but not when the wrongdoer seeks no forgiveness, shows no remorse and does everything possible to evade justice.

16 November 2017

The Australia–Israel Be’er Sheva Dialogue: round three

From ASPI, 14 Nov 2017, by Anthony Bergin:

On 1 November, ASPI and the Begin–Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies met in Tel Aviv, Israel, at the third Be’er Sheva Dialogue to build on the work initiated at the first round, held in Israel in 2015, and the second meeting, held in Sydney last year.

The ASPI–BESA dialogue brings together experienced voices from Australia and Israel to share perspectives and analyses on common security challenges, while reflecting more broadly on the outlook for the relationship between the two countries.

Having participated in all three dialogues, I think it’s fair to say that the Be’er Sheva Dialogue (named after the 1917 battle in which the Australian Light Horse fought) has grown in stature. That’s evidenced by the number of high-level Australian and Israeli participants across government, parliament (from both sides of Australian politics), academia, think tanks, industry, the military and the intelligence communities. A number of Australian and Israeli delegates commented that the increasing maturity of the dialogue means there’s now a greater candour and depth to the discussions.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull addressed this year’s dialogue. His audience also included many supporters of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, who’d made the journey to Beersheba to attend the commemoration of the centenary of the famous charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade to capture the town on 31 October 1917.

Turnbull saluted the achievements that the dialogue had accomplished in a short time, identifying areas of collaboration in defence between Australia and Israel for their mutual benefit. The prime minister’s visit to Israel culminated in the signing of a memorandum of understanding on defence industry cooperation.

Australia and Israel also agreed during Turnbull’s visit that our respective defence officials will now hold annual discussions on strategic and security priorities. To date, there have been almost no high-level military exchanges between the two countries. There’ll also be a track 1.5 cyber dialogue held in Australia next year. These positive measures were suggested at the earlier Be’er Sheva dialogues and were set out in a joint paper produced last year by ASPI and BESA.

We’ve always been seen as friendly by Israel, although it’s rarely been a major focus of policy efforts in Jerusalem. While there’s a mutual recognition of shared values, there hasn’t been sufficient recognition given by either state to how each contributes to the other’s national interests. What both countries are now discovering through high-level visits and track 1.5 dialogues, such as the Be’er Sheva Dialogue, is that there are also lots of opportunities to enhance bilateral cooperation.

In a way, that’s hardly surprising. Both countries face challenges from Islamist extremism. Both countries’ militaries are focused on how to incorporate cyber capabilities into military operations. Both countries operate American equipment and both are close to major choke-points along maritime oil and trade routes, making maritime security an important component of national strategic policy. In air power, both countries have acquired the F-35.

Delegates to the 2017 Be’er Sheva Dialogue exchanged views on regional challenges in the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean, terrorism, cybersecurity, maritime strategy (Israel is highly dependent on sea commerce and has significant offshore energy resources), defence industry cooperation, strategic policy under President Donald Trump, and hybrid warfare strategies.

On the cyber and innovation agenda, it was evident that Australia can learn a number of lessons from the Israeli cybersecurity success story, particularly in start-ups and skills development. But we need to be mindful that the Israeli experience may not directly translate to Australia: much of Israel’s success stems from compulsory military service and the unique cybersecurity skills nursery that the Israeli Defence Force provides.

In an interesting aside, one delegate noted that Australia is benefiting from Israeli technology in our almond industry. Significant investments here are safeguarded by Israeli sensors in orchards that tell what the trees need, such as water and fertiliser, making this an unusual cybersecurity issue.

Areas noted for possible future joint exploration were how both sides can counter the soft-power threats to liberal democracies and how to leverage social media monitoring for indicators of radicalisation or intended terrorist acts. It was also clear from our discussions that there are prospects for further joint exchanges on how we can share experiences of hybrid threats and what they mean for the battle space, as well trends in military innovation, specifically unmanned aerial vehicles, force protection and missile defence. There was a strong interest in sharing lessons on how to protect the gas industry at sea.

Australia and Israel should identify the conditions for closer practical collaboration in cyber industries with security applications. Israeli government agencies work closely with their cyber industry. Australia can learn a lot from the Israelis on how to build trust and achieve a common purpose between government and the private sector.

The discussions about China, particularly on critical infrastructure investment in Israel (China is building key Israeli ports and Chinese military vessels have visited Haifa), suggest there’s an opportunity for greater exploration between the two nations on the role of China and foreign investment.

In defence, consideration might be given to undertaking a small-scale joint Australia–Israel military exercise in the coming year in an area of mutual interest. The announcement of defence exchange between officials is very positive, and consideration should be given in the near future to having a regular ministerial-level dialogue.

On international policy, our discussions showed that there’s potential for looking beyond bilateralism and mapping possible structures for discreet multi-party consultations (for example, with India, which Israel is forging closer relations with).

The third Be’er Sheva Dialogue again underlined how each state can contribute to the other’s security interests.

03 November 2017

Australia-Israel: "OUR UNBREAKABLE BOND"

From The Australian, 31 Oct 2017, by The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, Prime Minister of Australia:

Brigadier General Granville de Laune Ryrie leads the 2nd Australian Light Horse Brigade across the desert at Esdud on the Philistine Plain in 1918

THE CHARGE of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba has inspired Australians for generations.

The veterans of the charge re-enacted it in Charles Chauvel’s 1940 movie Forty Thousand Horsemen—a confidence booster for a beleaguered nation at war.

As a young boy at boarding school in the early ’60s I watched it again and again—we all imagined ourselves spurring our horses through the Ottoman fire, leaping across the trenches and onward to victory.

Where so many armies had marched and charged before, it was one of the last great cavalry charges, an act of bravery that has echoed through the century since; an against-the-odds victory that broke the Ottoman lines and spurred the Allied forces on to Jerusalem.

The charge itself was an astonishing achievement. At dusk on October 31, 1917, Brigadier General William Grant gave the 800 Australians of the 4th Light Horse Brigade their orders: “Men, you’re fighting for water. Use your bayonets as swords. I wish you the best of luck.”

The cavalry began with a trot, accelerated to a canter and then to a gallop across 6km of open country outside Beersheba, under ferocious fire from well-entrenched Ottoman defenders.
Trooper Edward Dengate recorded the desperate charge. “We spurred our horses… the bullets got thicker… three or four horses came down, others with no riders on kept going, the saddles splashed with blood.”

Brutal hand-to-hand combat followed and 31 Australians were killed. But the 4th Light Horse Brigade prevailed. They had defeated an Ottoman force five times their size, and taken Beersheba and its vital water supply with it.

Just weeks later, the Australians marched with General Allenby into Jerusalem, while in London the Balfour Declaration was signed, paving the way for the creation of the modern state of Israel.

A century on, the city of Be’er Sheva is an oasis of technology and great practical ideas—a shining example of the best attributes of Israel and the Israeli people—ingenuity, resilience, and hard work.

Today, Australia and Israel share these values. We have an unbreakable bond that is only getting stronger. As we honour the memory and sacrifice of the Anzacs of 1917, we are determined to strengthen the ties between our two nations in 2017, and in the years to come.

Lest we forget.