This poses a rising risk to movements of oil from the Gulf nations. Australia takes some of this oil, but the biggest customers are China, Japan and South Korea, which happen to be Australia’s three biggest export markets. In other words, the risks to Australia’s economy are, directly and indirectly, pretty large if Iran should succeed in blocking Gulf exports.
But hold on. Why would Iran want to block Gulf oil exports? That’s the main channel for Iran’s own sales of the black stuff. The reason is that the US has effectively choked off Iran’s oil trade through tough sanctions. Iran consistently has said that if it can’t export oil from the Gulf, no one would.
Iran’s economy is shrinking under the US sanctions and unemployment is already at 30 per cent and rising. The Shia regime is under great pressure, and it wants to exert some pressure of its own.
It didn’t have to be this way. Indeed, it wasn’t this way until Trump came along and wilfully, mischievously opened a Pandora’s box. The Islamic Republic of Iran has never been a good international citizen. But until Trump, its most potent threat was contained.
The US under Barack Obama together with Britain, the major European powers plus China and Russia did manage to slam the lid on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Under the hard-won Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran surrendered the key elements of its nuclear bomb-making. In return, the world lifted long-standing economic sanctions. Australia supported the accord.
Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran was meeting the conditions of the deal. Until Trump confected an excuse to walk away from the pact when it still had seven years to run.
It was an act of vandalism. Trump wrecked the nuclear accord because, he said, it wasn’t tough enough. At the urging of Israel and Saudi Arabia, Trump also wants to force Iran to stop its sponsorship of international terror groups including Hamas and Hezbollah. So he tore up a very good deal in supposed pursuit of the perfect deal.
It was also an act of vanity. Whatever Obama had done, Trump wanted the opposite. So he opened a Pandora’s box. What’s more, he did so against the wishes of all the other signatories, and other supporters of the deal such as Australia. These are some of the nations the US is now asking for help.
Trump is asking some 60 countries to help keep Persian Gulf oil flowing by providing naval and air escort for commercial shipping.
The aim of Operation Sentinel, according to the new US Defence Secretary, Mike Esper, is to “de-escalate by deterring an escalation – any unnecessary provocation that leads to an unnecessary conflict”.
Under the Pottery Barn rule, named after an American pottery retailer and made famous by former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, “you break it, you own it”. There would be some justice in saying to Trump, you broke it, you own it.
This is the position taken by Germany, one of the signatories to the nuclear deal, which has now refused to join Operation Sentinel.
But Australia will end up saying yes. Our oil stockpile is precarious at a scant 26 days’ supply, thanks to years of negligence in Canberra. The Morrison government’s proposed solution? As the Herald disclosed on Monday, it’s to ask the US for access to their emergency stockpile in the event of a crisis.
This is a cheapskate solution that does not genuinely improve Australian resilience; it would only make it more reliant on the US in a time of crisis.
But above and beyond all of that is the principle at stake in the Persian Gulf. Operation Sentinel would seek to guarantee freedom of navigation of a vital international sea route. Today it’s in the Middle East. But uppermost in Canberra is the fear that freedom of navigation could one day come under threat in south-east Asia.
Beijing already unilaterally asserted an air defence identification zone that threatened freedom of aviation in the East China Sea. The US immediately rejected the claim by flying B-52 bombers through it.
In the event of similar Chinese acts of exclusion in future, Australia wants to ensure that freedom of navigation and freedom of aviation are enforced everywhere. And that the US will be encouraged to defend them once again.
The Morrison government hasn’t yet made a formal decision and details remain to be discussed, but in weekend talks with Esper and the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, there was a clear agreement in principle. The deal isn’t done but it’s as good as.
Peter Hartcher is international editor.
Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.