Australia should leverage its moral authority in international affairs

May 14, 2020 by J-Wire News Service
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Australia has the “moral authority” to be a major player on the world stage, which means it can and should do more in its international diplomacy, American Enterprise  Institute Middle East scholar and former Pentagon official Michael Rubin told a webinar hosted by the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.

Michael Rubin

Australia is held in the highest regard by the US Administration but does not fully leverage this, Rubin said, arguing we should be more active in asking the US for help with China, for example, and making the case for the US to stay engaged in the Middle East.

In this week’s webinar, the sixth in AIJAC’s “Live Online” series, Rubin opened by addressing the issue of “Can Iranian and Turkish regional ambitions survive COVID-19?”, before considering other issues relating to the Middle East, Australia, the US and global affairs.

Rubin submitted that the coronavirus will not change Iran’s or Turkey’s ambitions, as it is the nature of ideological dictatorships to prioritise their ambitions above all else, including what is best for their own citizens. If they were not of this nature, the Middle East would be a vastly different, much better, place. Turkey has also taken over Saudi Arabia’s role as the engine room for international radicalisation.

In Iran, he said, “regime change of some type” is coming, but not because of outside influences, but as  Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is old and unwell, and much of the old guard have either died or are also old, and there seems to be no real succession plan.

He cited authoritative polls that had only around ten per cent of Iran’s population supporting the regime while showing a further 15 per cent supported the broader revolution but think it needs to be reformed. This left 75 % who don’t support the system, but he noted that most of these people are still fiercely devoted to Iranian nationalism. The leadership, therefore, appeals to their nationalism by sparking unrest in its neighbours to spread its influence.

Iran now sees itself as an Islamic rather than just Shi’ite power, whose boundaries stretch from the northern Indian Ocean to the eastern Mediterranean and Gulf of Aden. He also mentioned that Iran and China are working closely together, including on industry and technology as well as satellites and ballistic missiles.

The worry, as Iran nears regime change, Rubin argued, is the potential ascendancy of the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as there is no prescribed timeline for succession, and the IRGC is already in a very powerful position.


In relation to Turkey, Rubin explained that President Recep Erdogan has brought in a policy of neo-Ottomanism, harking back to Turkey’s power during the Ottoman Empire. There is now an ideological agenda, with Turkey sponsoring imams throughout the world to propagate extremism, and to monitor dissidents and the Kurdish community in other countries. He also specifically warned that Australia needs to recognise how malevolent Erdogan has become, and how he has leveraged some of his assets in democracies, especially given our own large Kurdish community.

Turkey has become a police state, and Erdogan is using NGOs and other groups to extend his influence beyond its borders. Rubin cited a statistic from Turkey’s own government which shows that since Erdogan has come to power, the murder rate of women inside Turkey has increased by 1,400 per cent because of a sense of impunity in perpetrators, engendered by the ideology of the regime.

He also highlighted the rise of an organisation called SADAT, headed by Erdogan’s former chief military adviser, which Rubin described as a Turkish version of the private security corporation Blackwater. He said that SADAT has been involved in arming terrorist groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabab in Somalia, and Hamas.

In response to a question about Hezbollah, he said that it is a terrorist group, and the fact that it carries out other activities doesn’t make it any less a terrorist group and suggested Australia should join most of its allies in designating it as one. One of the reasons the US designated the entirety of the IRGC as a terrorist group is so that if it attacked anyone, the victims or their families could go after its businesses for compensation, whereas if only part is designated, they would deny that the business part is responsible. The same should apply to Hezbollah, he said.

Rubin described what is happening to Kylie Moore-Gilbert, the Australian academic currently imprisoned in Iran, as “disgusting”. He said that quiet diplomacy won’t work, because that’s what Iran wants, so instead, Australia should make the issue front and centre in all our interactions with Iran, and press our allies to do the same, because Iran will only listen when the cost of keeping her hostage becomes too high.

Rubin said he believes that the current American campaign of maximum pressure on Iran is the best way to temper the regime’s adventurism, noting examples from history whereby, despite the regime’s stated defiance, strong pressure worked to end the American hostage crisis and the Iran/Iraq war.

If economic pressure is great enough, Iran may reverse course, he added. What is also needed, though, are strategies to find factional divisions in the IRGC and exploit these.

Rubin said that in Iran, the COVID-19 pandemic has shattered the already weak economy, but using a carrot and stick economic approach to modify Iran’s behaviour won’t work, because the IRGC, through its various legal businesses, controls 40 per cent of Iran’s economy, including key industries, and also has a vast illegal economy. Only ten per cent of its income comes from the government.

Rubin also spoke highly of new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, saying he is clean, a liberal and concerned with human rights, and for years has been an intermediary between Shi’ites and Sunnis, Arabs and Kurds and Iran and the US. He will have a tough job in trying to restore the economy from the state it was left in by previous governments and will try to quarantine the Iranian-supported militias, which have not been the same since IRGC leader General Soleimani was killed, from other militias in Iraq.

Rubin noted that other senior figures in the new Iraqi administration also have Western education and security backgrounds rather than involvement in militias, so that is a positive too. Iraq wants to be nationalistic and not under Iranian domination, and it’s important that the US support it in staying independent of Iran, he added.

Regarding US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Israel this week, Rubin said Pompeo and Israeli leaders would have discussed Iran, where they see eye to eye, and also the proposed annexation of areas of the West Bank, and the Middle East peace process. Pompeo also likely raised US unease with Israeli dealings with China, including the number of Israeli start-ups being sold to Chinese ventures.

Asked what could happen if Joe Biden becomes US President, Rubin said that while Trump has been good for Israel, everything he has done is reversible. It’s hard to say what Biden may do, as throughout his career, he has held many contradictory positions. Statements by some advising him that US funding to the Palestinians should be restored, despite their ongoing payments to terrorists, are concerning. It will be important to see who his advisers are, who his Vice President is, and whether the Bernie Sanders-affiliated radical wing of the Democratic Party becomes dominant.

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